Cronenberg adds subversive touch to London crime thriller

Gala Presentation: Eastern Promises
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: Steve Knight
Producers: Robert Lantos, Paul Webster
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Distributor: Odeon Films
International Sales: Focus Features

David Cronenberg is an artist driven to explore the subversive side of human nature. So to say his latest crime thriller, Eastern Promises, is about the seedy, exotic Russian mob in London’s underground is a surface-scratcher.

Cronenberg loves discussing the politics of film and human sexuality.

‘I think human sexuality permeates everything,’ he confides to Playback during an editing break, ‘and human sexuality takes many forms, so it’s not something where I would ever censor myself.’

Cronenberg is referring to the recurring theme of homoeroticism in his work (from Stereo or Crimes of the Future through Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and Crash) and how it affected his decision to make Eastern Promises.

In this story, the mysterious and charismatic Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious organized crime families, headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose charm masks the brutality of the entire family, enforced by Semyon’s volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is secretly in love with Nikolai.

‘Their relationship came with the script,’ explains Cronenberg, who collaborated with writer Steve Knight on two rewrites. ‘And that was one of the interesting things that made me want to do this movie.

‘It was sort of a gangster movie that subverted all the clichés and added some things you’ve maybe never seen before,’ he continues. ‘And one of them is that relationship between those two characters, because it’s obvious that Kirill is in love with Nicolai, but could never admit it to himself, because, of course, in that underworld, to be gay is to be incredibly weak and incredibly vulnerable.

‘So even though on the surface the Russian mob thing is very macho, it’s not. It’s always very perverse and melancholy and strange.’

Nikolai’s dangerous and carefully maintained existence is jarred when he meets a midwife named Anna (Oscar nominee Naomi Watts), who also gets wrapped up in the mob while seeking the truth about a diary.

Another twist in the tale is that Nikolai’s body is covered in tattoos. ‘That was perfect for me because it was ‘body modifications’ but in a less sci-fi way,’ explains Cronenberg. He says he personally wrote the defining line in the script: ‘In Russian prisons, if you don’t have tattoos, you don’t exist, because your life story is written on your body in tattoos.’

‘I’ve always been very interested in these hermetically sealed, enclosed, very intense subcultures, whether they’re invented ones like in Videodrome or Dead Ringers, or whether they’re reasonably well-known ones like the Peking Opera [M. Butterfly], or in this case, Russian mob culture.’

And of course there’s violence – short, sparse and graphic. This time it’s a sauna scene with hand-to-hand knife combat (Mortensen’s in a towel) that will ultimately be the talk of the film.

‘It’s very realistic,’ says Cronenberg. ‘You see everything, and it goes on for a long, long time. You really feel like you’re in the fight.’

‘Being there’ is a sensation that the director says he always aspires to deliver. ‘It gives you a chance to live other lives,’ he says.

‘That’s the attraction of dramatic art. And that’s the deal I have with the audience. I’m saying, ‘You’re really gonna feel like you’ve been living here.’ And not all of it is going to be cozy.’