In David Cronenberg’s most recent films, there is an eerie deliberation over dialogue. It might well be that this is just stilted direction, cutting by rote between speakers and holding the camera on a face for the duration of a line reading. But it creates an undeniable tension that the careful placement of shot next to shot, action followed by action will be interrupted by something terrible. It’s the montage equivalent of a game of Jenga – it’s intriguing to watch the build-up, but it can’t go on indefinitely. This is most obvious in the languid, quiet opening of A History of Violence, where the aftermath of a massacre is played out like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The same eggshell-treading editing characterises Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s nasty leer inside the Russian mafia in London.
Here, Watts gets to put on an immaculate English accent. Born in Shoreham, Essex, she spent a large part of her childhood in Llangefni, Anglesey (that’s in North Wales), until the age of 14, when her mother moved the family to Australia. At North Sydney Girls’ High School, one of her classmates was Nicole Kidman, and it has often been convenient to connect or compare the two, especially since there was a slight facial resemblance between them (at least before Kidman’s face dramatically, artificially changed). While Kidman’s movie star cache has been sealed with her attempt to cling on to a high level of glamour and shine still playing imperious aristocrats (The Golden Compass, Australia) and fantasy wives (Bewitched, The Stepford Wives), Watts tends to remain more quotidian in her choices of role; while Watts is currently the best value actress in Hollywood, Kidman remains the worst. Kidman makes admirable stabs at “out-of-character” casting, such as Margot at the Wedding, The Hours and Fur, but we are asked to accept them as exactly that: a spectacle of a glamorous actress coming down to earth. Watts is cast for how she might embody ordinariness rather than put it on like an elaborate charade.
Note for instance her role in Eastern Promises, where she is used as a symbol of stable family (though her home life is deeply troubled, she knows what it is she “should” be yearning for), around whom a maelstrom of violent gangsterism swirls. Is there a common link between Watts and mother characters? Here, we first see Watts’s Anna working as a midwife and tending to a Russian girl dying in childbirth. We learn that Anna’s own child was miscarried, and that her father has died. The film thus begins on a set of recent deaths, a morbid opening that casts a fatalistic pall over everything that follows. Anna’s maternalism, watching over the orphaned baby at the hospital and weeping for her own loss, is set in contrast to the patriarchal, macho familialism of the Russian mafia, with its artificially enforced lines of hierarchy, inheritance and bloodlines. The term “vory v zekone”, often translated as “thief in law”, refers to the high-ranking bosses of the criminal underworld of the former Soviet Union, retaining connotations of genealogy and the alternative code of ethics by which they must live, which actually prevents them from having families of their own. Hence the juxtaposition of Anna’s maternal yearnings and the mafia’s corrupted paraphrasings of family. See, for instance, the cut directly from a used and discarded sex worker, barely compensated by the money left in front of her, to Watts, bathed in daylight, holding the orphaned child she has rescued.
Watts is, then, maternalised, but also rendered prosaic, accentuating the baroque decadence (gradually shown to be corrupt and corrupting) of the mafia lifestyle. Compare the scene of Watts, her mum and grandfather eating at home. It’s shot in such a stolid style, with a frontal master shot followed by measured and deliberate medium close-ups of each speaker in turn, …
… that it stands in stark contrast to the open-space, mobile-camera, crowded complexity of the Russian relations that follow in the next scene:
Directors like to use Watts in this way, to show her overpowered by surroundings, but enduring. She has a delicacy that looks almost powerless (note the number of shots in the film where she avoids eye contact, without turning it into a character tic), which makes it look all the more impressive when she triumphs. There is little about Eastern Promises that is triumphal, though; Watts’s maternalism never gets to overcome the mafia, only to resist and avoid its pull. It ends with a quiet restoration of order, and a glance at a possible future where a reconciliation between the two worlds seems fleetingly possible: