Good Example: Eastern Promises

by Jay Stringer

Something different this week.

It is easy to be a critic. To sit and point out the flaws in a film, and where the writer or director went wrong. But how about when they get it right? After all the criticisms I have raised and all the narrative mis-steps I have talked about, I think it is time to look at what happens when everyone involved makes the right choices.

EASTERN PROMISES has fast become one of my go-to films. When I want a simple story well told, something dark, focused and a little grubby, I put this film into my DVD player. A film that is as well honed as a lean crime novel.

So what makes it such a winner for me? There are a few key elements which make this movie work so well. I think if you have not watched it you should experience the story for yourself, so I will tiptoe around the edges of the plot.

The first point is ‘show-don’t-tell.’ It is something I have mentioned before, and is something of a personal mantra for books and films that I enjoy. I do not want the story to stop dead to give me exposition, and I do not want to be talked down to like an idiot. I want to discover things the same way we would in real life; through dialogue and action. Now, this film does have a slight cheat, but I will come back to that later and explain how I think the film earns it.

For the rest of the film though it is all show and no tell. We get to see things being worked out and clues being followed. There are a couple of mysteries at the heart of the story; one that drives the plot and another that becomes important in the final reel. The clues to both of these are laced throughout, and the audience is given the room to figure them out. Any good mystery has two layers, on the one hand it is easy to figure out if you are looking at it from the right angle, but it is also easy to get so wrapped up in the plot that you might be forgetting to look at the clues. The art of a storyteller here is to trick you;  to lay all of the clues out on screen but make you forget that you are looking at a puzzle. I think the main mystery here is pretty simple, and if you are looking at it then it is all over within the first few minutes. The second mystery is a little trickier, but the clues are there throughout the film.

And it is with the second mystery that the film really steps up into the show do not tell mastery. If the writer had been lazy he could have explained it with a few simple words, but the story takes place in a world where nobody reveals their true nature or feelings, and so the film cannot betray itself by having one character explain all to another.

This is where I think the film earns its one narrative cheat. The story uses voiceover at a few key moments. Voiceover has become a bit of a taboo, but that is mainly because films that use them are so often badly written. The voiceover becomes a crutch, a cheat way to put across information that could have been done another way. But in EASTERN PROMISES the voiceover is from a dead girl, a character who we only see briefly in life but whose presence hangs over the entire film. As I said before, this is a world where nobody is honest with anybody else. From Vincent Cassel’s sexually confused Kirill, to Viggo Mortensen’s morally ambiguous Nikolai, nobody is going to explain themselves or share their feelings. In this setting, the voiceover of a dead girl, reading from the journal that the plot is built around, becomes the only honest way to put certain information across. And because the film is so strict in other areas, so unwilling to break the honesty of the moment, it earns the use of the voiceover.

The plot of this film moves. There are no tangents or funny asides, no trips to the planet naboo. There is no scene here that does not in some way advance the story, but it is not done at the expense of character. Each time we hear a Hollywood Director complain about their film being shortened, about a studio cutting out character scenes, we should remember that every scene should be a character scene. Part of the problem with films at the moment is that too many writers and directors seem to forget this; they divide their films into character moments and plot, and its obvious which of those a studio would want to emphasise. But films like Raiders of the Lost Ark did not need to do this. We met Indiana Jones through his actions, we understood his character and the evolution of what was important to him. The film was studio-proof because Spielberg and Kasdan married the plot and character development together. EASTERN PROMISES is a very different film but it also makes the same choices.

By the end of the film we know all we need about Kirill, Nikolai, Anna and Semyon. We know their quirks and their secrets, we know their hearts, but we are never spoon-fed anything. We see that Anna is honest and incorruptible by the way she refuses to sell her fathers bike. We see Nikolai is holding back something about himself by his careful use of sunglasses, and when the chips are down we see what a vicious survivor he is. The final scene between the two of them speaks of a whole love story that may never happen, because neither can be honest with each other. The writing and acting combine here to tell a whole story without the need for a crass explanation.

There is a wonderful contrast between the two worlds of the film. Anna’s family is shown to be tetchy and confrontational, whilst the family of criminals is warm and inviting. The loudmouth Kirill is not as knowing or dangerous as the stoic Nikolai, and neither of them are as twisted as the gentle old man Semyon. It is drawing a clear line between what you want to hear and what you need to hear.

The main thing about this film is its focus. In recent weeks we have looked at films like Godzilla and Dragon War, films that did not know what they wanted to be. EASTERN PROMISES, like all good films, knows what story it is telling. The script is set up to get in, tell its tale, and get out. Last week I talked about The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a film filled with characters doing things for no reason. Here we know exactly what motivates the characters. Each one has a reason for what they are doing; we learn through a well-played family scene why Anna might care so much about an abandoned baby, and we gradually learn that Nikolai’s motivation is what drives the film.

Know your story and know your characters. They seem like two such simple ideas, but they feel so rare in modern cinema. Throw into that a script that treats its audience with respect and we have the building blocks of a fine film.

Next week I look at one of the best examples of them all, Die Hard.

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