October 24, 2007 5:16 pm

Capital crime and punishment

David Cronenberg is one of the great indie auteurs of late-20th-century North American cinema, his work dredged from some of the creepier recesses of his subconscious. He has always been highly prolific, and now the flawed but fascinating and chilling Eastern Promises seems very much like a companion piece to his great A History of Violence of 2005.

The story begins in cardiac-arresting style with a terrifyingly realistic mob hit carried out in a north-east London barber shop – consciously evoking memories of the Godfather films. The victim is a leading player in the Russian mafia but it is some time before we learn why and on whose orders the hit was ordered. This scene leads straight on to another blood-soaked sequence in which birth and death are horribly intermingled, leaving a new-born baby motherless and the midwife who delivered the child determined to uncover the mystery of her background.

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The midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts, reprising the generic English accent of The Painted Veil) is half-Russian herself and incautiously heads straight for a Russian restaurant, the business card for which is tucked into a diary left behind by the baby’s mother. The meeting between Anna and Semyon, the restaurant’s sinister owner, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, leads to an uneasy relationship and propels the story towards a number of climactic sequences. One of these is sure to become an instant classic, at least among aficionados of outré screen violence.

The star of this sequence, indeed of the film, is Viggo Mortensen, who delivers a typically charismatic and genuinely bold performance as Nikolai, the taciturn driver for Semyon’s wild son. Nikolai is deliberately enigmatic, wholly self-contained in his humble position yet possessing a degree of humanity in a world of amoral monsters. Gradually we learn more of his past and his character as he literally sheds layers, not stopping even when naked.

Although relentlessly gripping, the film is more interesting than it is satisfying, let down by the script. The first draft was written by Steve Knight before he wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another thriller set in an unexplored subculture of modern London.

As a timely reminder to BBC chiefs that factual film is a form well worth supporting, three new non-fiction features, all very different, prove richly entertaining.

In Sicko, Michael Moore’s follow-up to Fahrenheit 9/11, the film that made him a multimillionaire and the object of intense critical scrutiny, the director turns his attention to the grotesquery of the US healthcare system. He seeks and finds many stories that shed light on the wretchedness of the situation. Over the course of the film’s excessive running time he leaves us in no doubt as to the quotidian inhumanities that occur as a result of a system that relies on the ability of citizens to pay for health insurance. Moore is rightly celebrated for his elaborately staged stunts and this film’s highlight, involving a boat-trip to Cuba, is as hilarious as it is disturbing. Judging from his past record, however, Sicko is likely to swell his personal coffers but make no discernible difference to the issues that it so angrily raises.

The makers of Lagerfeld Confidential have boasted of the unprecedented access they gained to their subject. Ultimately, though, they are hampered by the fact that, as talkative and witty as he is, Chanel bigwig Karl Lagerfeld is a stubbornly private man. We learn in the opening moments that he owns 14 iPods and several trays overflowing with chunky jewellery, and the film provides an insight into his louche, jet-set lifestyle. Through it all, Lagerfeld gives good aphorism, and it is refreshing to hear him conclude that the world of fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unjust.

Heima (released on November 3) serves a double function, introducing us to the ethereal music of Sigur Rós – imagine a hybrid of Radiohead and The Cocteau Twins – but also presenting a stunningly beautiful succession of shots of the Icelandic landscape that clearly helped shape the eerie music. The film is a document of the band’s 2006 homecoming tour ( heima is Icelandic for “at home”), when the band played a series of free concerts played across their native land, mostly staged in venues that had never seen anything on this scale before. The result is moving and satisfying to the eye and ear, though sticklers may question the film’s slick sound, which presumably involved a lot of post-production to smooth off any rough edges.

Finally come two films that run counter to reputation and expectation. No Smoking (12A) is a typical slice of Bollywood only in that it features at its heart a good-looking pair of star-crossed lovers, is a hodge-podge of genres, and contains a handful of musical numbers. But Anurag Kashyap’s film is a real oddity, shifting gear after the first half-hour from whimsical melodrama to morality-tale-cum-psychodrama. Its story, rather too languidly told, is of a narcissistic young man cheated into selling his soul in order to give up smoking.

Coffin nails of a different shade feature strongly in the re-released Hammer production of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 12A). The colours are striking and there is a not-understated erotic charge to the count’s sanguineous feasts, but the enterprise suffers from an excess of inadvertent camp. This is an example of a film that retains its nostalgic appeal only in the memory and not when revisited in the chilly air of a preview theatre.

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