There’s a buzz in the air in London town. Forget Cannes, Venice and Berlin. For weeks Brit film buffs and motion picture boffins have been feverishly preparing for the launch of the UK’s biggest film event, the BFI 51st London Film Festival. And whether you’re a flick fest aficionado or a novice, our gloriously cultured capital is the place to be over the next 15 days, as 180 feature films from across the globe will be screened and scrutinized, including seven world premieres, 29 European premieres and 128 UK premieres.
I had the enormous pleasure of attending the screening of opening-night gala film Eastern Promises yesterday; it’s horror veteran David Cronenberg’s latest venture with his A History of Violence lead crony Viggo Mortensen. I say “pleasure” in the loosest sense of the word, for within minutes a man’s throat is graphically carved with a razor blade like a slab of Easter Sunday corned beef. Blood cascades from his severed neck, illuminating the capital’s sinister and seedy underworld.
As I sank into the depths of my faux-leopard print seat, the Leicester Square Odeon’s mammoth silver screen loomed over me, sinister and intimidating. It was an abrupt and dramatic start to two weeks of motion picture madness, with 43 countries representing the full spectrum of world cinema, culminating in the closing night premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited: a comedic voyage across India, starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.
Cronenberg oozed world-class coolness at yesterday’s press conference for Promises, alongside stars Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, at the swanky Soho Hotel. The Canadian director of The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash (not the Oscar-winning one) and a dozen other profoundly disturbing features has accrued a cult following in his 30-year career.
We discussed the film’s unapologetic violence and its most memorable moment: a sauna scene where outstanding actor Viggo Mortensen, as the mysterious and ruthless Nikolai, is stabbed and writhing naked on a floor streaked with blood at the Finsbury Park Swimming Baths. Stabbed? Cronenberg explains the notable absence of guns: “To kill someone with a knife, it’s a very intimate and perverse act. With a gun you can distance yourself from a person, and you don’t really. But if you kill someone with a knife it means that you feel them, you smell them, you hear them breathe right there, and it has a more terrifying effect on the people around whoever you’ve killed, that you would be that intimate. I think that’s why beheadings seem to be such terrifying things to people in the West. Even though dropping a bomb on people in the village will kill a lot more people, a lot more quickly. So it’s a psychological thing we do deliberately. It was meant to have that potency.”
Eastern Promises is a harrowing story of deceit, murder and reckoning in a capital that protects gangs and enslaves innocents. It’s an exceptionally poignant piece about the Russian mafia in London, which eerily echoes the recent poisoning of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko: “When we started the movie the Russian mob in London was a fairly obscure subject. But when we finished it, it was front page news all over the world because of Litvinenko. That happened halfway through the shoot, literally half a block from my front door, and Vincent and Viggo’s front door, near a building owned by the oligarch Berezovsky. And one day when we went by there were police in hazmat suits, a forensic van, and they were finding traces of polonium radiation poisoning.”
Eastern Promises is powerful and uncompromising, and for Londoners its sordid subject matter may feel a little close to home. Cronenberg promises “some surprises for Londoners”, and defends his shadowy chosen theme: “There’s always the feeling that you will discover something really significant or profound about human nature, the human condition, if you go to those dark places as opposed to the more mundane everyday places that we all know.”