Release Date: December 23, 2007
Rating: 3 ½ ½/
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassell and Armin Mueller-Stahl
Written by: Steve Knight
Directed by: David Cronenberg
“...My father died in the mines in my village, so he was already buried when he died.
We were all buried there, buried under the soil of Russia.
That is why I left. To find a better life...”
Eastern Promises is a complex drama from David Cronenberg which follows the introduction of a young British doctor to the Russian criminal underworld in London. On some levels, it’s a simple story. Not much actually happens. But as I have found with much Russian theatre, the small things that are said and done mean a lot. And there is a lot of meaning to be found here. A major issue is made of the tattoos that cover the criminals’ bodies, particularly the virtual map that covers Viggo Mortensen. And there is much examination of double meanings and double faces. Characters that initially seem quite charming and paternal may actually be something else. Characters that initially seem threatening or malevolent may not be. There is an extreme irony in the religious imagery that adorns Mortensen’s body, in that it conveys a criminal history, not a pious one. As with many of Cronenberg’s films, Eastern Promises methodically takes its time, slowly revealing each layer of its story until it reaches what could either be seen as an uplifting or devastating conclusion. And that’s not to spoil anything – that’s just the way Cronenberg works. If you’re a fan of his, as I am, this will be a rewarding time. Just be warned that Cronenberg’s clinical approach to the destruction of the human body is continued here, with several scenes of fairly gruesome violence and one scene of sexuality.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3/5
Eastern Promises is presented in a solid 1.85:1 transfer that accurately reproduces flesh tones and the darker color scheme of this film. Longtime Cronenberg cinematographer Peter Suschitzky keeps the color scheme fairly warm, with an emphasis on the reds, browns and blacks. This is not a slick film, and the performers, including Naomi Watts, are not photographed in a manner designed to flatter. There’s a lot of grunge on display here, and the detail visible in the transfer shows that Cronenberg and Suschitzky are interested not in trying to beautify their images but in simply presenting the people and places as they are.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3/5
Eastern Promises is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English and French that provides some atmospheric effects like rain in the rear channels, but which really focuses the sound in the front channels. Howard Shore’s string-accented score comes through all the channels nicely. Given that this is a quieter dramatic film, it’s appropriate that the effects are kept simple and the emphasis is on the dialogue coming from the front speakers.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 2/5
Eastern Promises has two featurettes, totalling just over 17 minutes in running time. This is the one place where the DVD really doesn’t come through. You would think that a commentary track with Cronenberg and Steve Knight could have been included, or perhaps a commentary with Mortensen and the Russian advisors they used. Or they could have tried to include a full documentary about the tattoos, such as the one they mention as an inspiration, The Mark of Cain. But alas, all we see here are the following two items:
Secrets and Stories (10:31, Anamorphic) – This brief featurette includes interviews with Cronenberg, Knight, Mortensen, Watts, Mueller-Stahl, and others along with some on-set video and some brief clips from the film. Cronenberg and Knight have some interesting comments to say. Cronenberg notes that the film is really about a sub-culture of a sub-culture (The criminal underground as a subset of Russian émigré society as a subset of the London community). There is also some discussion of the multiple brands of Russian being spoken onset by the various actors coming from America, Britain, Germany and Poland.
Marked for Life – (6:42 total, Anamorphic) - This featurette focuses on the tattoos worn by Viggo Mortensen in the film, and their various meanings. Mortensen discusses several of them, describing the contrast between their appearance and their actual meaning. (The spires on his back are not church towers; they indicate the number of prisons in which he has been incarcerated.) The film’s tattoo artist also discusses this work, and the film’s makeup artist shows how the various tattoos are applied. Cronenberg mentions that the tattoos were not initially so important, but after Mortensen did his own research and found a veritable mine of information, the screenplay and film were accordingly adjusted to give them much greater prominence. (Of course, the idea of body marking as a way of telling a person’s history fits right in with the interest Cronenberg has always had with the human form.) Mortensen also tells one interesting tale of leaving his tattoos on when going out to a pub after work and alarming some of the patrons with just the visible ones that were on his fingers.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the special features. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference. When the first disc is initially started, the viewer is presented with an optional series of non-anamorphic previews including Atonement, Lust, Caution, Reservation Road Canvas and the older HD-DVD promo.
IN THE END...
Eastern Promises is a worthy addition to David Cronenberg’s resume of multi-layered dramas. If you’re already a fan of his, or of Viggo Mortensen, this is probably on your list as we speak. If it isn’t, it should be. But I must warn those new to Cronenberg’s world that the warning about violence isn’t a hollow one. I must also convey my disappointment in the lack of supplemental material, but I am happy to recommend this DVD on the strength of the film itself and the picture and sound.
December 24, 2007.