This isn’t our world. We are ordinary people.
—Helen (Sinéad Cusack)
“Sometimes birth and death go together.” Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is making a point about her own job as a midwife in North London, but she’s also summing up the painful, irreducible cycle exposed in Eastern Promises. Anna’s just seen a 14-year-old Russian-born prostitute die during childbirth. And now she’s struck by a profound sorrow, for the young mother and infant, tinged by her own understanding of the loneliness and yearning that afflicts those who live alone and in-between.
You don’t necessarily get all this in what Anna says. In fact, she doesn’t say much throughout Eastern Promises. But her ache is manifest in her slightly bent bearing, her probing gaze, and her very environment, the cool grey tones of the streets and the close, stark walls of her bedroom, in her mother Helen’s (Sinéad Cusack) house. That Anna lives with Helen grants small insight into her internal life. It turns out she’s recently broken up with a boyfriend, one whose absence and blackness still upset her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski): “It’s not natural to mix race and race,” he mutters, whereupon Anna finally gets angry, as much as she will show. When she leaves the dinner table and scene, she also leaves her mother to voice her upset. Still, Helen’s pronouncement—“Damned bloody Russians!”—is less about Anna or her interests than about the film’s.
While Anna remains restrained and watchful throughout Eastern Promises, she’s surrounded by men who express themselves monumentally—in their violent actions and, most interestingly in this David Cronenberg film, in their body art. The Russian gangsters who, it turns out, have brought the dead girl to England, are members of the vory v zakone, simultaneously underground and daringly visible, as they tattoo their life stories onto their chests and limbs. While both Helen (through Anna’s father) and Stepan know something about the gangsters, Anna doesn’t confront them until she takes an interest in the dead girl.
Her name was Tatiana. She appears at film’s start, briefly, fainting and slipping on her own blood as her labor begins in a London pharmacy. While the grim, awkward, dark red slipperiness might be glibly described as “Cronenbergian,” it is also about the connections of life and death Anna feels so deeply, in her work and in her own losses. Indeed, Tatiana will lead Anna to the “damned bloody Russians” by circuitous and wholly obvious routes. First, she leaves behind a diary that Anna pilfers and must have translated; this becomes a storytelling device that links the two women through a kind of private communication, opposed to the men’s more public declarations, their tattoos and communal posturing, their rapes and their murders.
Viggo Mortensen (left) and Armin Mueller - Stahl (right)
The mystery is twisted up by Anna’s translators. When the fight with her uncle initially precludes her asking a favor, she turns—unfortunately and inevitably—to a gangster. She doesn’t know at first that Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is in fact a dangerous man, since he poses as the owner of a Trans-Siberian restaurant (with dark red walls, not so incidentally). But you are aware immediately that he is odious, a vory boss with a particularly creepy self-regard. Perennially disappointed by his son, the reckless, embarrassingly “queer” Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon seeks a successor to his brutal reputation and business interests. He believes he’s found a replacement son in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who works as the family’s “driver.”
Nikolai matches Anna in quietness and observation. Their relationship is established through her motorcycle, a vintage Ural that belonged to her father. When she is, so conventionally, unable to start it one rainy day, he offers to help, having noted her affection for it (“Ah, sentimental value. I’ve heard of that”). They start up a conversation as he drives her home (having been unable to fix the bike), and she’s made aware of the threat he and his employer embody. Though she doesn’t understand quite the detail of Semyon’s involvement in the mystery she wants to solve, the mystery of Tatiana, she’s sharp enough to pull back even as she keeps pushing, as she and Nikolai work out something of a delicate dance, their mutual desires and disparate needs only partly articulated.
Nikolai’s reticence helps to keep him alive. Assigned to look after Kirill, he’s become more than a driver, cleaning up after the young man’s messes with a startling, even comic, ruthlessness. (Asked to remove one victim’s identifying signs—fingers, for instance—he sets to work with cold calculation, warming the frozen body with a hair dryer, suggesting to his hosts that they may want to leave the room before he begins sawing. And with that, he stubs out his cigarette on his own tongue.) Nikolai is also willing to entertain Kirill’s fantasies, maintaining secrecy about his own. Kirill orders him to have doggy-style sex with a prostitute while Kirrill watches, to “prove he’s not a faggot.” As their gazes lock, over the adolescent girl’s bare back and bottom, just what they’re sharing and what they’re hiding from one another is difficult to parse.
Vincent Cassel (left) and Viggo Mortensen (right)
The film asks you to believe that Nikolai comprehends the malevolence in which he’s immersed, as he talks around it with Anna (“I’m just the driver,” he says more than once, even as you know that she knows that he knows this means something else). It also asks you to believe he can take it, take the violence and the guilt. Nikolai’s tattoos tell a story that he translates for a group of elder-gangster assessors, as they measure him for a promotion (which means more tattoos, the “stars”). Nearly naked, he disdains their efforts to rile him by calling his mother a “whore.” “I have no mother or father,” he says dutifully, “only vory v zakone.” Neither does he flinch when they threaten to kill him: “I am already dead. I died when I was 15. Now I live in the zone all the time.”
The zone is where you live when you are in-between and alone. It’s where Nikolai lives, where he meets Anna, a place made extraordinarily visible in, of all places, a Turkish bath house. Called there for a meeting arranged by Semyon, Nikolai wears only a towel when he’s beset by a couple of black-leather-jacketed assassins. The fight is as provocative and inelegant as any of the much-discussed violence in A History of Violence (or Spider, Crash or Videodrome), Nikolai’s nakedness and tattoos suggesting both his vulnerability and determination, psychic chaos and weird narrative control.
Eastern Promises crosses up and recombines stories of parents and children, even violence and history. Bloodied and marked, dead and alive, the film’s many bodies are emblems of lost borders and lost values. No matter how much Anna might want to see Nikolai as someone like her, someone she can trust, she cannot. And the movie doesn’t let you see him that way either.