David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises plays out in a strange netherworld London. Set mostly in the parallel world of Russian organized crime, the London streets of the film often seem devoid of the people and action so characteristic of the metropolis. At times, the action of the film seems almost as geographically restricted as the (not so quiet) small town at the heart of Cronenberg's previous film, A History of Violence, as if to emphasize that he has little interest in a tourist version of the city (Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things similarly refused to reduce the city to a series of postcard views).
Cronenberg often seems fascinated by the disconnect between appearances and reality, and he gives that theme full rein here; it's not, of course, an entirely new theme for explorations of gangland, given the simultaneous depiction of brutal violence and close-knit family life in a films like The Godfather. It's not a legacy that Cronenberg denies, it seems to me; rather he uses the diconnect to create truly multi-layered characters that confront us with complex and even unpleasant moral choices. It also allows him to play with audience expectations, and even to spring plot surprises on the viewer (well, at least this viewer); he's expert at the mechanics of genre cinema, while not allowing himself to be limited by conventions.
In this film, Cronenberg is consistently interested in those who are otherwise dismissed: the plot is set in motion by attempts to identify an unknown girl, of little consequence to most people at the hospital where she dies. Cronenberg is also insistent on finding the humanity in characters that others dismiss: a prostitute who is discarded by one of the Russian gangsters is beautifully lit, looking almost like a painter's model, as if to emphasize that this woman is as worthy of artistic attention as anyone else, and that she retains a core of dignity that few are willing to accord her. It's of a piece with the humanist spirit of many of his films, where he finds unexpected tenderness and affection in stories that often contain raw, even brutal violence - such as the memorably bone-crunching sequence here where Viggo Mortensen fights another man in a Russian bathhouse.