Sunday, January 6, 2008
Which one's the Russian?
Russia, and Russians, continue to be the hardest thing for Hollywood to get right. Even if you make allowances for French, Serbian and Danish actors (pictured left to right). (The Serbian actor doesn't get that much screen time though he makes a reappearance in a different part of the Thames later.)
Here we have an industry that is able to put out a three-hour movie in what for all I know was perfect Aramaic (Last Passion) yet still serves up Euro-Turkish pastiches if it needs to portray a Russian. (Not that this view of Russians is necessarily very inaccurate, but it is clear the ethnic tropes and accents are vague and shifting).
Now Estonians are about as far removed from Russians as you can get, on the other hand, but close proximity for so long has made us good arbiters of the Russian national identity -- and certainly apt judges of onscreen Russianness, especially accents. Believe me, Estonians know from Russians. I've seen a movie theatre in Tallinn erupt in laughter over Val Kilmer's The Saint, and it wasn't anything related to the action.
I thought David Cronenberg's new Russian mob film Eastern Promises, which I stole the above photo from, might have, well, promise -- it was shortlsted for a few top ten films of the year lists. And it does get some things right, though some lines are dangerously close to self-parody -- the offer (or is it a threat?) "and I will cook you some borshcht" made by the unctuous crime family boss (and restaurant owner) to the Naomi Watts character. Yes, there are some moments almost worthy of Mystery Science Theatre here.
Viggo Mortensen stars, as a driver ascending to be the boss. I wonder if there is really that much precedent for this in mafia dynasties. How many of the kingpins of NY crime families were once chauffeurs? Or is this just the mob movie cliche of the year, in the way that the black judge is the courtroom flick cliche of the decade ? Viggo is a mobster with a heart of gold, another cliche.
Still, the plot is fairly intricate and clever. And Viggo's acting is excellent, almost Aragornian.
How well does the man from Gondor manage being a Russian? Pretty well, for someone who has presumably done months of homework for the role. The less he says, the better. "Da, da" comes off particularly well, and I'm not being sarcastic. Kudos. There are certain things that he has down, perfectly conveying the stolid Russian leading man in all of his taciturn, macho yet oddly gentlemanly character. When he is inconvenienced, or when he feels a pang, he sets his jaw in this certain way - perhaps he overuses this - is as distinctive as De Niro's more lopsided crooked smirk.
"Chechens" make sinister appearances, as do other "former Soviet" elements, but the word "Estonian" is not mentioned, thank God. Interestingly, however, the film features a role by former president of the Estonian Supreme Soviet, Arnold Rüütel, who is in fine form as Stepan, a cagey old emigre who once worked for the KGB. Method acting all the way, I guess.