William Friedkin once referred to his film, The French Connection, as a “crude poem” to New York City. David Cronenberg’s latest film, Eastern Promises, is anything but poetic though crude is quite apt. The genius of The French Connection is that it distils the shabbiness of New York circa 1971 onto celluloid, poeticising the dirt and turning the city into another character in the drama.
Eastern Promises does no such thing at a time when critics are championing foreign director’s portrayals of London over British filmmaker’s attempts. When British directors come out with Basic Instinct 2, and Agent Cody Banks 2, then perhaps the critics are right, but faced with films such as Match Point and Eastern Promises, Sight and Sound should rethink their latest cover: ‘Cronenberg’s London’.
For Cronenberg’s is a film guilty of Match Point’s failings and more. Apart from an exhilarating ride across London Bridge (exhilarating for people who have never sat upstairs on the number 21) we get nothing of our London location. The Russian Restaurant, which is supposedly the headquarters of a huge eastern crime family, is where the film’s most interesting scenes occur. Cronenberg focuses lovingly on the red velvet table cloths and Russian feasts laid out before the characters. Characters, who, like the restaurant, are big and bold splashes of colour.
Yet behind this there is a resounding hollowness. The cast do not work as an ensemble, and only Viggo Mortenson seems to realise that less is more. At the other end of the spectrum, Vincent Cassel tries to cover up the vacuity of his character by rushing around making flamboyant Russian gestures, a poor imitation of his excellent work in La Haine.
Of course none of this is helped by Steven Knight’s screenplay. Although it improves as the movie goes on, the dialogue in the early scenes is dire, like a cat retching up hairballs of exposition. Naomi Watts drops some clangers in the name of profundity (my favourite was a completely straight faced: “sometimes birth and death go together”). Despite some improvement in this department, the second half of the screenplay has at least one completely nonsensical double crossing, and a revelation that has no shock factor whatsoever. Not because we could see it coming, but because it is essentially meaningless, and lands in the film as if by parachute.
In the recent documentary Sicko, we sit up when Michael Moore praises the NHS, whilst in Eastern Promises we sit up when Naomi Watts tells us that her house isn’t far from Central London (“just across the park”) and we end up in Balham. This would be excusable if the characters were anything more than vaguely racist clichés, spouting clunking dialogue in a film that has so much potential that it hurts.
This, ultimately, is Eastern Promises most frustrating failure. It has the semblance of a good plot, and it has the foundations of a fascinating location. Ultimately, Cronenberg doesn’t rise to the challenge. London, perhaps, is a city harder to portray than New York. It has layers of history and memory which other more modern cities lack, which only a local could hope to convey. One scene in Eastern Promises has someone get stabbed in the eye. The film wasn’t that bad, and this was confirmed by the audience’s reaction to the spurting blood. No shock and fear. Just repressed laughter at a film that should have been much better.