TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains references to sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to some.
In early April, my boyfriend and I were walking in the little park near our apartment, observing other people’s dogs and children. He asked (from behind his mask) if I wanted to watch a movie that night—he’s a film buff and we’ve been enjoying watching things together. Good idea, I said, from behind my mask. What was the one you recommended a few weeks ago?
He couldn’t remember, and I didn’t have much else for him to go on. I have a terrible memory for actors’ names and a weak track record on film knowledge. As we walked, I offered him the best I could do in terms of recalling a weeks-ago pitch. “There was something about sex. I think you said . . . in a bathtub? Maybe a hot tub?”
He still couldn’t remember what I was talking about, and now I was sounding unhinged. Sounding like a thirsty nut. Either he had fully forgotten the conversation, or I had made up that it existed.
So I felt a great relief—and vindication—when he came into the bedroom about a week later and suggested we watch Eastern Promises that evening. That was it! Please, I told him, tell me you remember pitching that to me some time ago.
It’s a 2007 film by director David Cronenberg. Near the start, a girl, pregnant, enters a pharmacy in London. The pharmacist assumes she wants methadone. Then the camera pans to the girl’s skirt, which is reddening with blood, and we see her rushed to the hospital. The baby makes it; the young mother does not.
A midwife named Anna, played by Naomi Watts, finds a diary in the purse of the deceased mother. She predicts accurately that it might contain information on who the young woman was, and whether she has family who could take in the baby. The diary is written in Russian, and a card tucked inside it points Anna to a restaurant, whose owner she speaks to. Before she can get a straight answer from him on how he knew the mother, it becomes clear that this man is a Russian mob leader. And, mistakenly, Anna engages him to translate the diary—wherein lies not only a devastating picture of the life Tatiana lived, but also information about the parentage of her child that is dangerous in the hands of the mob.
Viggo Mortenson, playing the chauffeur to the mob boss’s son, first meets the camera leaning sleazily against a pole, outside the mob headquarters, watching Anna chaining up her motorbike. Though his speech is difficult to understand at first, the gist of mild sexual harassment comes through. And yet he gains a modicum of Anna’s trust, and ours; as the plot unfolds, he proves himself different from the other mobsters. One is relieved in spite of oneself on finding that Nikolai is not loyal to the mob at all.
I was skeptical of this theatrical and improbable drama. In it, a Russian crime ring becomes a crucible for both a young woman who has been thrust into a reckoning point she hasn’t bargained for, and a young man whose career as a spy in the mob takes on velocity he hadn’t quite been ready for. It hardly seems to take place in London; it feels more like various stage backgrounds: the hospital, the gang headquarters, motorcycle routes in between, and the edge of the River Thames, where bodies are cast out to float.
The film abides by the nostalgic sort of movie-etiquette in which, to accomplish something, you ride your motorbike over to a strange location and knock on the door, even though you might have tried the internet. It requires suspension of disbelief and a tolerance for coincidence and deus ex machina.
It also requires a stomach for blood. But the extreme violence propelling and adorning any gang movie is met here with the equal counterpart of innocence, rendered with great pathos and unmistakable symbolism in the infant, who is the child of an underage rape victim. If we still live in a world in which the innocence of rape victims is disputed, the movie acknowledges this in also giving us a baby—whose presence provides a moral anchoring point that makes the stakes of the violence that much higher.
And yet any effort to bring condemning perspective to the gang violence is stymied, for me, by the way in which justice arrives. The man behind both felonious impulses—to rape the girl, to kill the baby—will pay, but silently, outside the court of law. It is a resolution from a fairy tale, and the point seems more to award glory to Viggo Mortenson than to endorse real accountability for men who rape and kill.
So I decided not to look too hard for nuance in the plotline of mob politics and infiltration. The gang intrigue is well done and shows some of David Cronenberg’s capabilities with body drama. But it seems secondary. As I was drawn in, it didn’t seem right to view this as a gangster film or even a crime film.
Instead, I saw in it something much more elegant and complex, and not about men.
Were it not for the nuanced performance of Naomi Watts, it might be missed that there is great seriousness to Anna, the midwife who takes a search for justice into her own hands. It may be true that the story is charmed, the plot only semi-believable, but I found that in Watts’s performance I was able to see the crags of Anna’s personality and the hues of real hopes and fears. Anna’s character is actually neither unreasonably foolish nor unreasonably fearless, which synopses won’t tell you, and the script might not, either.
Watts dexterously satisfies the movie’s need for her character to be both overconfident and sexily innocent—see moments with the motorcycle helmet in hand, rapping at the restaurant door, nodding stonefacedly into a bargain with the mob boss—while quietly reflecting the complexity with which her harmless curiosity about the baby’s family and her do-good attitude find themselves commingling with fear and disbelief. She would admit, if asked, that she knew she shouldn’t get attached in this way. And the movie gains in gumption as Anna takes us into a starkly familiar moral landscape, in which women suffer when they bring horrific crimes to light.
The frame of the film does not have room for, say, the regular maternity ward shifts in which mothers live to see their babies, or Anna’s nights in London spent outside the company of men who slit throats in barbershops. But Watts nods to the existence of this bulk of the iceberg when the camera is on her face. The movie very occasionally alludes to it, too: about halfway through, Anna’s uncle throws an angry barb that insinuates a miscarriage in her past, and into the frame creeps a rich and very human inner life of Anna’s. Without any further dialogue to support that plotline, Watts carries through the emotional trajectory of Anna’s complicated desire to be a mother, delicately showing us a world-weary young female professional, more alone than she would like to be and engaged in a profession that, try as she might, can never just be a profession.
I always figured the phrase “movie magic” had something to do with the sweeping away of youngsters into Disney movies, or aggrieved citizens of a racist America into Black Panther, or perhaps even a nostalgic lover of the medium onto a black-and-white Italian beach of 1950. The magic isn’t in being transported (though there is that, too) but rather in the movie’s gentle coercion into suspending disbelief. For me, that coercion was done by Naomi Watts—as ably as, say, Meg Ryan takes us up to the top of the Empire State Building with Tom Hanks.
When Anna decides in favor of motherhood, taking the baby to be her own, it is a kind of succumbing that resembled my own, as I allowed myself to escape into the film. Anna knows that it’s not conventional or even advisable to adopt a child she delivered; that with a bit more societally-endorsed detachment she would commit Christine to the care system set up for this purpose. But the film builds to where such a choice won’t happen: when the stakes are so high, the only satisfying climax is passionate and outlandish, and as Anna and Nikolai save the baby at the river’s edge, we’re thrilled and moved by her embracing the unreasonable choice. Anna, our tether to reality, falls into what the movie is calling her to do, against her own prior reluctance.
I was sobbing at the end of this movie, in complete compliance with the extravagant drama I had resisted believing in the first place. Here was a beautiful, perfect baby, and she’d just been dangled over the water’s edge and what might have happened was unimaginable. I emitted all pent-up distress and relief at once, as good movies and books have us do; I was even a little touched, in spite of myself, by the kiss between Nikolai and Anna. But most of all, found myself undone at Naomi Watts’s first words to the infant as her mother: “It’s okay.” Her embrace of the baby on her shoulder feels like a promise: “I will always take care of you.”
A few days before watching Eastern Promises, I had one of those afternoons in which the existential burden of the virus, the terror of the economic crisis, and my regular insecurities came to a head. About halfway through a cathartic cry, I thought: I should call my mom. It had occurred to me that what I wanted most was that old, far-off mother-love. Why should I turn to my therapist, my boyfriend, my friends for placation when I have a mother, the same one who tucked me in for so many years and made me believe that everything would be okay—who gave me that kind of love and is still available to do so?
I didn’t call her just then, though part of me still wishes that I had. Something stopped me as I enumerated the things I expected she actually would say—things more practical than “I will love you forever” or “it will all turn out all right.” She would let me cry and ask me if it had helped to get it all out, and I would say that it did, even though perhaps I didn’t get it all out. I think I would have held some of it back so as not to burden her or seem histrionic, because I want her to know I’m okay. And I would have met her halfway, brainstorming with her the things we will do to take care of ourselves, not making her tell me all the answers.
In times like these, what reassurances can we actually believe?
Naomi Watts’s Anna couldn’t offer motherly comfort to the girl who died on the operating table, and even if she had it would have fallen flat: everything was not all right, and in dying the girl’s future was just as uncertain as that of the baby she brought into the world. And Anna, evidently without a mother herself, might just as well have put her scrubs back on and clung to her career as the way forward, the sturdiest edifice available to a woman making her way in an unkind world. But at the peak of the crisis she finally lets the pieces fall together, because they look like fate, and because this might be her only chance to have a child, and because—in spite of herself—she loves the infant.
There is a problem in a feminist reading of this film: the young dead mother whose story is the beating heart of the movie actually is actually no more than the silhouette of a brave refugee and survivor of sex trafficking. No more information is available besides what she wrote in her diary—and she wrote it as though she knew it would be read when she was dead, unidentified, and far from home. And yet the movie is built on doing right by her and, ultimately, I was willing to deem criticism of her lack of complexity irrelevant.
In the shadow of this barely-identified victim we can see the contours of all kinds of real people, and in the face of the protagonist doing her best by what she knows of that girl, I could see myself, trying to discern a line between what is ordinary and what is surreal; navigating circumstances I never thought I’d have to navigate. I forgive Tatiana’s being a silhouette; I even forgive Viggo’s getting the last word in a sappy epilogue that simply shows him reading her diary and appearing moved. I forgive all the elisions of detail and background and I forgive myself for crying when the movie wanted me to cry. This was a perfect moment for a film that, even while painting with familiar colors and tropes, holds that right is right, wrong is wrong, and mothering is indispensable. While a catastrophe rages, it’s a good time to sit down in front of a screen and let yourself be drawn into a different impossible story, and to, just for a moment, accept the promise that everything will be okay.
My boyfriend had indeed recommended Eastern Promises to me, in the blurry pre-quarantine weeks, in what I’m sure was a sophisticated and nuanced pitch. But the part that stuck must have been simply: “You get to see Viggo Mortenson’s dick in a bathhouse.” Well, that is true. But I almost didn’t want to mention it. It’s a knife fight, not a sex scene at all, hardly what I’d sell the movie on.
Bathtub, bathhouse—not bad for memory, I’ll hold. I’m glad I haven’t completely lost it.
Annie Bishai is an assistant editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She lives in Brooklyn.