CAPSULE: A London midwife is threatened by the actions of the Russian Mafia in this new thriller from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg brings back Viggo Mortensen from his last film into another violent action part. Double-crosses, violent fights, and secret plans make the film feel like a good episode of the Sopranovs. This could well be Cronenberg's best film of this decade, atmospheric and exciting. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
When an unidentified 14-year-old drug addict dies giving birth, her midwife Anna (played by Naomi Watts) is left holding the baby. Anna needs to identify the dead girl and to find the baby's family. But she has only what was in the dead girl's pockets to help her. The effects include a handwritten book, probably a diary, which had been kept in Russian and a business card from a local Russian restaurant. Anna's is half-Russian, but she herself does not know the language so she needs help. Her uncle reads Russian but is not willing to do the translation when he finds the sort of terrible story that the diary tells. Instead Anna goes to the restaurant on the card. There the owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is only reluctantly willing to translate the diary. But going to the restaurant brings Anna in contact with Semyon's violent gangster son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his very efficient lieutenant Nicolai (Viggo Mortensen). The story spans the days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve.
David Cronenberg's last film with Viggo Mortensen, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, was actually a redux of a plot from a 1950s Western (by way of a graphic novel). This time he has made a first-class thriller. Before that he did SPIDER, a downbeat character study of an acute schizophrenic. One film was too heavy, the other a bit too light. This time he balances action and atmosphere and gets it just about right. Fans of "The Sopranos" will find the sort of intra-family machinations and politics of a crime family. Certainly part of the appeal of Sopranos, the education of how the Mafia works, is here also with the revelations of the Russian Mafia and specifically the baroque language of tattoos. The tattoos on a Russian Mafioso tell you more about his past than the medals on a five-star general tell you about his.
Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the Russian patriarch in whose restaurant much of the story takes place. Ordinarily he is a very good actor, but it was genuinely distracting to hear him speak with a Germanic rather than Slavic accent. ("If she hahd verked here...") I wondered was there some plot detail that I missed that explained this anomaly? Mortensen did sound sufficiently Russian, at least to me. But then he had spent weeks travelling in Russia preparing for the role. He has the raw-boned face that is magnetic.
After A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, viewers will expect that we will see Viggo Mortensen in violent action scenes. Cronenberg has gone from the bizarre graphic visuals of his early films to simply extreme violence in his later films. While there appears to be little gunplay in the Russian Mafia, there is a lot of knife- play. There is a saying that being unprepared is bringing a knife to a gunfight. In this film Mortensen's character takes it a step further by bringing almost less than nothing to a knife fight. (Okay, he wasn't expecting it.) But it was a scene that somehow is much more exciting than a gunfight or martial arts fight.
This is a suspenseful and brutal London crime drama to rank with some of the better British-made London crime dramas like LAYER CAKE. It is not the kind of thing we are used to from David Cronenberg, but he comes off in fine style I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0765443/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper