EASTERN PROMISES D: David Cronenberg w/ Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts. Canada/UK. 96 min. Sep 8, 6:30 pm Roy Thomson Hall; Sep 9, 9:30 am Ryerson. Rating: NNNNN
Following his acclaimed A History Of Violence, Cronenberg and Eastern Promises deliver in full. It's one of the director's best, and like AHOV it employs a pretty simple premise and executes it superbly.
After discovering the diary of a dead 14-year-old Russian immigrant in London, hospital worker Watts finds herself and her family in jeopardy. That diary incriminates various members of the vory v zakone criminal underworld, including restaurant owner Armin Mueller-Stahl and his unpredictable son (Vincent Cassel). Laconic chauffeur Nikolai (Mortensen) is dispatched to secure the diary and take care of any loose ends.
Writer Steve Knight wrote the script for Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things; he's got a great ear for the clashing cultures jostling for footholds in a foreign city. There's lots of dark humour, and the two extended families -- Russian and English -- take on equal weight.
Mortensen, given a world-weary look, guarded posture and high-maintenance hairdo, is completely convincing. There's no trace of the actor, just his character. In his welcome return to the screen, Mueller-Stahl's twinkling baby blues are more menacing than ever. But the real surprise is French actor Cassel, whose sadistic, possibly impotent son keeps you on edge with his unpredictability.
Still, it's Cronenberg's film. He knows how to create suspense in the most seemingly ordinary scene, and he mixes up tones so masterfully that you'll be left slack-jawed with admiration. A fellow film critic thinks one controversial scene involving nudity and violence will likely be cut to shreds by the censors, so see it uncut (no pun intended) while you can.