While I'd have loved to attend the London Film Festival Gala opening of EASTERN PROMISES, a second screening the following day provided the opportunity for an early viewing of David Cronenberg's latest. So, at 3.45pm my wife and I settled back in our seats at the plush Odeon Westend cinema for the sold-out screening.
Based on a script by Steven Knight (who also wrote Stephen Frears' DIRTY PRETTY THINGS - another LFF fave of mine - EASTERN PROMISES slips into the twilight world of Russian organised crime in London's East End. The film begins with birth and death as nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) finds the diary of a Russian teenager who has just died after giving birth. Anna asks her Russian uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the journal, and also engages the attention of restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who expresses keen interest in this diary of a lost girl. Semyon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and henchman Nikolai (Mortensen) make up a frighteningly real triumvirate of terror as egos clash and the object of their attentions becomes more and more important.
On the strength of just one viewing, I'm on the verge of naming this as Cronenberg's strongest film since the twisted love story that is CRASH. it's simply dripping with prime Cronenberg themes and imagery - birth, death, sexual tension and, yes, body horror - and boldly underlines the feeling that Cronenberg has to be one of the most brilliant director's of actors currently working. Watts, Cassel and Skolimowski are all excellent, but it's Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl who really excel: the former bringing light and shade to an extremely complex individual while the latter breathes life into a character who moves from outward charm to a terrifying persona of evil at the flick of a switch. Highlights are many: look out for an unbelievably brutal encounter in a Turkish bath-house (where Mortensen does battle in unconventional 'body armour'; a sex scene that brings DEAD RINGERS to mind (there's a very good reason for the chosen carnal position) and a brutal declaration of intent set in a trad barber's shop. This really is a treasure trove, both above and below its surface veneer with Peter Suschitzky's excellent photography showing our capital city at its most menacing. Indeed, as we stepped out into the mild London evening, I couldn't help but think that the London we had just seen was possibly closer than we dared to imagine. Another great cinematic experience, but there is an admittedly minor complaint attached to this event. The previous evening's Gala Opening saw personal appearances from David Cronenberg and Naomi Watts. Would it have been too much for at least one of them to introduce the second screening? Watts did make an appearance on the red carpet outside some 15 minutes after the film ended, so her no-show beforehand was doubly infuriating. Vincent Cassel was also in town, so I guess no-one thought to ask him. The London Film Festival is the biggest event in our movie-going calendar. With a little more thought and effort it could be even more memorable.