Thursday, 1 November 2007

Eastern Promises; the trick is not to see the obvious twist

Read no further if you're the kind of person who doesn't want to know what happens in a movie before you see it. I'm that kind of person myself, in principle, so I will understand completely. But every now and then you get a movie where everything else works so well that you can't help wondering why they bothered with a twist and why they didn't do more to mask it once they did. Eastern Promises is that movie.

It's a powerhouse cast. Viggo Mortenson may or may not be a good actor, but he's got charisma and a physical presence which the role really needs. Naomi Watts IS a good actor and if anything, she's not really given enough to do. And Armin Mueller-Stahl is like the white Morgan Freeman these days. So there you are with a good cast and a name director. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing really does. Viggo is a commanding presence, effortlessly dominating his scenes - though it helps that most of them are with an actor playing a useless drunk bag of nerves with delusions of grandeur. Mueller-Stahl is his usual marvellous self. And it's worth saying something about what Naomi Watts gets done because I've seen some grumbling in the real reviews of this movie. The plot calls for Watt's character to start looking into the background of a woman who dies in childbirth in her ward. And some of the reviews I've read have been all grumpy and negative about the likelihood of this really happening or of her getting the free time. I don't see the basis for this, having sat through the movie. Firstly, it's unusual in this day and age for a mother to die giving birth in Western Europe. We're not living in Victorian times any more. Even a busy midwife is only going to see it happen once a year, and it doesn't stretch my credulity that it would hit a person hard and leave them flailing around a bit. And there's a neat bit of backstory about Watts losing a child in the recent past which further fleshes out her motivation. Above all and everything else, there's Naomi Watts herself, once again doing tough vulnerability as though born to it. So to me, her character, Anna, works fine.

What doesn't work is the twist which I think is supposed to make us go "Aha.", and which just made me go "Well, it took you long enough to reveal that." Viggo plays a henchman on the make in Armin Mueller-Stahl's larger criminal empire, which runs on forced prostitution and drugs. Which is where Anna comes in - the dead mother seems to have been a prisoner of that empire. Anna finds her way to the edge of that with her first tentative enquiries, and thus runs into both the big boss and the henchman. Which is one of the places where Viggo is good casting; you can see both the menace and the charm in that craggy face. However, from pretty much the moment he gets to say anything, it was obvious to me that Viggo was a mole. This is revealed as a big surprise at the beginning of the third act of the film, but it seemed to me to be completely unmissable from the get go. A lot of it was down to the pacing and presentation of the character's actions. He's curiously distant and unengaged a lot of the time, which I think is supposed to make him seem mysterious - but in the criminal milieu he inhabits, it must have made him seem aloof and detached from a society where personal connections are paramount (a point hammered out again and again as the film unfolds). But Viggo is always hanging back from overt violence or any kind of wholehearted engagement with the people around him. It just screamed plant at me.

The weird thing is that the entire plot could have worked out just as well without him being a mole at all. Everything we see his character do is directed at him climbing the hierarchy of russian crime to break it. But he could equally well have done everything he does in order to overthrow the boss from simple greed. And in some ways that would have been both a more realistic and more interesting film. So I find myself asking - why the twist, and if you had to do it, why not mask it better or place the reveal earlier, before it became obvious to the dogs in the street?

And one grumble, which just niggled me. It's the Russian mob. So everyone speaks Russian. Except when they don't. And when they don't, it doesn't make a button of sense. People are having conversations in Russian, and switch for no apparent reason to English and then back again. All it needed was someone saying, Elvis-like "Speak English; show you have the command of two proud tongues!" I appreciate that there's an underlying concern to ensure that people don't have to READ all the dialogue, but for goodness sake - it's a film by David Cronenberg, set in London, with no guns and no explosions. How many non-readers were they expecting to come to the movie?

Still, that's a niggle. It's a good film for all those faults, largely down to some good performances. The best of the supporting cast is the guy who plays Anna's Uncle Stepan, who does a wonderfully credible unreconstructed Russian. I don't imagine that Russians anywhere will be happy with the depiction of Russian culture in this movie, but I have to say the casual bigotry and racism were right on the nose from my own experience. Sometimes my Russian friends could take my breath away. I don't know that Russians are any more bigoted than anyone else, but they're curiously unabashed about saying it out loud.

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