Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg                          Writer: Steven Knight
Film Score: Howard Shore                           Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl

You would think that with the advancing years, the technological revolution, the enlightenment of society, that sex slavery would be diminishing. And yet it flourishes. What does that say about our capacity as humans to treat woman in ways that are barbaric? This is a difficult topic for me to get my head around. Very difficult. And like Taken or The Jammed, Eastern Promises exposes what we already know exists, and yet seem helpless to stop. Like the war on drugs, stopping sex trafficking seems fruitless because there is always a market for men who want to rape women in a safe--for the men--environment. It is, in a word, horrifying. But is it entertainment? Should it be entertainment?

The question is almost a moot point given that director David Cronenberg is at the helm, as his vision of entertainment can be pretty extreme. But here he steps back and goes mainstream. What he shows of the sex slavery is tame in comparison with a film like Taken, because that is not his point. It’s more of a philosophical exploration and a character study. A pregnant girl who winds up in Naomi Watts’ emergency room dies giving birth to her child. But Watts also finds her diary, written in Russian. Unfortunately she finds a business card of a Russian restaurant and goes there, little knowing that this is the center of operations of the Russian sex trafficking going on in London. Now that the owner, Armin Mueller-Stahl, knows what she knows, he has targeted her and her family for termination.

Viggo Mortensen plays the driver, and new recruit by Mueller-Stahl’s son, Vincent Cassel. What begins as a possible expose on sex slavery, however, is quickly understood to be something of a British version of The Godfather, with Russians instead of Italians. Mortensen was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, the closest a mid-level actor like him is likely to get to the statuette. Which is not to diminish his performance, but the type of films he appears in are not apt to win him many further nominations. Mueller-Stahl is the real chilling character in the film, the Russian Brando, he runs his mafia family in London and is utterly ruthless. Naomi Watts is the innocent who stumbles upon the truth. I’m not sure she was the right choice here. I mean, it works, sort of, but a more Russian looking actress might have been better.

It’s not a great film, but it is good. It doesn’t dwell on the slavery aspect as much as it does the mafia and that tends to diminish the impact of what these men are doing. It’s as if Coppola elected not to show any murders in The Godfather. Vincent Cassel plays the stereotypical crazed youth wallowing in his father’s wake from any number of films: Sonny in The Godfather, Little Junior in Kiss of Death, etc. Cronenberg has his moments, the Turkish bath scene is especially suspenseful without going over the top into the impossible, but for the most part it’s a workman-like effort. Eastern Promises is probably best enjoyed by Viggo Mortensen fans, as he does deliver an Oscar worthy performance. The rest of the film, for all its promise, burns less brightly.

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