Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

“My name is Tatiana. 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”


Don’t get me wrong, Cronenberg is great. I watched A History of Violence and realised that I have clearly missed out o a huge back-catalogue of a great director. Then I watched Crash and thought, huh, thats weird. The whole connection between technological metal and human flesh … interesting. Something Leonardo-Da-Vinci about the whole thing. Nevertheless, by the time Eastern Promises was released I was well-prepared and found it important enough to warrant a full-price cinema ticket at the Camden Odeon. For two people, it cost something like £20. Thats the same price as a new-release DVD! It all even-ed out though, thank god, when I found the film on blu-ray for £5. So, in total, £25 for an opening-week release viewing plus a blu-ray copy of the film. Thats good value I think. Not to mention, how recently, the Mad Hatter from The Dark of the Matinee blog mentioned this on our Brit-Canada crossover of the Matineecast, whereby he placed this in his Top 5 Canadian films … set in London, but completely a Canadian film.

Culture and Identity

Already this has begun to sound like a dissertation. “Culture and Identity in David Cronenberg’s Post 9/11 Cinema”. There you go folks, if you are studying, I have literally given you an amazing topic to rip apart – whereby Eastern Promises would inevitably be the centre piece. The assumption is that you have seen the film already but, to summarise the plot: Anna (Naomi Watts) is a nurse who assists in the delivery of a child whose Mother dies during birth – the Mother was under 16 and from Russia and Ana seeks out who is responsible for the child. This forces her to fall into the Russian underworld scene in London – and amongst many people she meets, she builds a realtionship with Nikolai (Viggo Mortenssen). Nikolai works for the family of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and primarily looks out for Kirill (Vincent Cassell) a confused young man in a world of crime.

Anna, as she explores the childs past – she explores her own challenges she has with her culture and identity. Though she has Russian heritage – she doesn’t understand the language and has clearly adapted to Western life, becoming an accomplished Nurse. The whole story is sympathetic to Anna, namely as we can relate to her. Her Uncle, who translates the young Mothers diary is more in touch with his Russian past – but still has problems to adapt. For eample, he sticks to his racist attitude – grossly insulting both Anna and her previous partner by blaming Anna’s mixed-race relationship for the loss of her child. This is the only indication of Anna’s past – but this small point makes a clear Ana’s motives and the lack of connection Anna has to her Uncle. You can tell this is not the first time the Uncle has said something completely inappropriate. Though we see the same narrow-view in Semyon – the lead ‘Don’ in this Russian mafia group. Semyon blames ‘London’ for Kirill’s obvious attraction to men – though clearly he is aware of the contradiction in when stating how he wouldn’t want to go back to Russia because of his health. The whole idea of losing your culture – even sacrifing it – to be in a more progressive country is an idea that is incredibly unnerving. Anna does not even know the language – but clearly holds on to her heritage. The young-Mother explains through her diary how she left Russia to be happier elsewhere – even Nikolai knows the small villages that have little to offer the young. Only recently, having read Mark Kermode’s Its Only a Movie he mentions – very briefly – a venture he had to Russia. Put it this way – its all grey. Lots and lots of space. Though, clearly nobody from Russia would want to lose their heritage, they inevitably lose parts of their identity. The traditions. The family unit. The language.

Homosexuality and the Rennaissance

On my second watch I realised how tender the relationship is betweeen Nikolai and Kirill. Nikolai can see the struggles Kirill faces – he knows he is caught in the criminal life he does not want to lead (not that he is very good at it) but he is also trapped in the closet as it is very clear Kirill is homosexual. Nikolai doesn’t mock him or shame him for his frustrations and obvious attraction to him – if anything, he assists in confirming the thoughts Kirill has by participating in the sex he is ‘ordered’ to conduct. My thought is that if he was so uncomfortable, I am sure Nikolai could have stood up to Kirill and either argued him down (even using physical restraint) explaining the situation to make Kirill understand – but Nikolai does neither and even chooses a position with the girl that must play into Kirills fantasies involving Nikolai.

Nikolai in that one situation helps the girl to escape – as we later find out – but also helps Kirill gain closer attraction to him. Nikolai’s careful to not condone homosexuality nor attempt to change Kirills urges and natural feelings – helping Kirill find out who he is. Nikolai – in all the violence that surrounds his job – is tolerant as he understands the bigger picture, as he tolerates Kirills ongoing conflicts. But he uses this to his advantage as Nikolai tells Kirill that “either you’re with him or you’re with me” – hinting at living the life with his Father Semyon whereby he needs to hide his homosexuality or the possibility that he uses his options in the Western world to be openly homosexual with Nikolai. Obviously, Nikolai knows – and Kirill desperately wants – the latter.
Another homosexual (a very vague link…) is none other than Michelangelo – the Italian Rennaissance artist. The stronger link is the sequence in the sauna as Nikolai is mistaken for Kirill and is nearly murdered – he is forced to fight for himself. Mannerism was a period in art history that followed the Rennaissance and preceded the Baroque period. Michelangelo was one of – if not, the first of the – Mannerist artists. What separates Mannerism from the movements before and after is the use of the contorted bodies – distorted and contorted bodies. In some cases so extreme, it just looked strange – long necks, twisted torso’s etc. If you really like this type of thing – and it really is interesting – do check out this website as it explains the movement. Michelangelo began the movement by showing many bodies, mainly masculine bodies (as I said, like Kirill, he had a tad of an attraction to young boys…), twisted and as you can see in Battle of the Centaurs (on the left) from 1492, the whole sequence in the sauna reeks of this type of distorted torsos and wrestling that littered so many works of art by Michelangelo. The fact that Nikolai was being mistaken for Kirill, and Nikolai effectively re-enacts a sequence indirectly ‘created’ with homosexuality in mind, adds another layer to an already complex tale of identity.

Bookends of Death and Rebirth

The film opens with two sequences. One whereby there is an explicit death at a barbers – a teenager with learning difficulties slitting the throat of a respected criminal (something on a par with ‘made men’ in the Mafia. Cut to the death of the 14-year old girl – one-minute later is the time of her daughters birth. This is the final theme to discuss – the idea that when one thing stops, another begins: when you start a new life, the old life is deceased. But this birth of something new must always be respected and supported. So, akin to the idea of a rapists child being aborted – this film is raising the point that a baby and a new start is to be given a chance. Your past – your heritage – does not make you who you are. By the end, it concludes to show that Nikolai has clearly given no weight to his past in Russia – selling it off to the British police – but he knows that he is building a better life in the process. Anna on the other hand has understood that she wants her past to be with her albeit as a cultural awareness rather than a desire to become a fully-fledged Russian mafia member – but she is still looking to the future with the child. And it is this future that is the bottom line – as a viewer, we can take away from this that it is only how we start afresh that counts – not what problems of the past can stop us. Maybe, we can all be ‘reborn’ if we want to …

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