How Cronenberg and Screenwriter Steven Knight Kept You Sitting on The Edge of Your Seat by Creating Tension in “Eastern Promises”
I recently rewatched David Cronenberg’s excellent “Eastern Promises” from 2007. Even though I liked it when I first saw it years ago, this time I was struck by how well structured the movie is — especially in the first part of the movie.
The screenplay is written by Steven Knight and you can see from reading it see that the structure stems from his writing. Cronenberg made many small changes to the screenplay but the structure remains from Knight’s work.
In the screenplay, Knight utilizes a simple and subtle narrative trick that, for me at least, was brilliant in keeping the suspense throughout the first half of the movie.
The protagonist, Anna (played by Naomi Watts) is a midwife at a hospital in central London and one day a young woman dies in her ward while giving birth to a baby girl. The young woman have no identification papers on her but she did carry a diary with her. The problem is that the diary is written in Russian.
Although Anna herself is Russian she can’t read the language and therefore she asks her uncle Stepan to translate it for her. He abruptly refuses as he finds it highly immoral and utters “Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?”.
So, Anna must find another way to translate the diary in order to find the relatives of the unknown young woman. Inserted into the diary is a card of the restaurant owned by Semyon (played brilliantly by Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Anna drives to the restaurant and explains why she is here. At first Semyon acts ignorant to everything Anna is telling him. That is until she brings up the question about the dairy. Then he transforms completely and is suddenly eager to help Anna, especially to translate the dairy.
When you read the scene in the screenplay in isolation — or view the scene in the movie in isolation — Semyon doesn’t strike you as an evil man per say. More a bit strange, eccentric maybe. But on the other hand, he is an elderly man, so that might explain his behavior. That is exactly what Anna thinks also. He seems like a very likable grandpa-kind-of-person and is very polite and forthcoming toward Anna and her request for a translation of the diary.
Watch the entire scene (a small cutaway have been edited out) and judge for yourself. Semyon really seems like a nice old man, right?
And here comes the trick that Knight and Cronenberg play on us. We, as the viewer, knows that Semyon is an evil man. Very evil and everything around him is evil. We know that the diary likely contains information that Semyon normally would have people killed for. The issue is then, if Anna can trust Semyon to do a real translation or if he’s going to lie to her, or maybe even get her killed?
Parallel to this, Anna keeps pushing her uncle to do the translation and he keeps refusing. Unknown to Anna, it has become a race against time. She has to convince her uncle to translate the diary before Semyon figures out what Anna knows.
It’s in the context, the order, of the scenes, that gives the story its tension. How they are put together. Because we as the reader/viewer know more than Anna.
This subtle trick creates an enormous tension and suspense in the story. We sit watching this part of the film on the edge of our seats hoping that uncle Stepan will come to his senses and help Anna so that she can get as far away from Semyon as possible before it’s too late.
Even though this tension is resolved in another way, it moves the story forward in a very efficient way. Scenes that viewed in isolation are somewhat boring become almost unbearably tense. Simply because of the scene preceding it and the knowledge we gather from that. We know so much more than Anna does. We are omnipresent in the story but Anna is not. And because the character of Anna has been firmly established a very likable character, we are constantly hoping that she will be safe and get out of the situation unharmed.
This is of course nothing new in the ways of telling or structuring stories, but Cronenberg and Knight’s approach is interesting because of the absence of what you normally see in suspenseful movies.
Normally you would accompany a tense scene with menacing music or increasingly hectic intercutting between another location/scene. Cronenberg and Knight does not employ this. Both scenes with Anna and Semyon in the first half of the movie are so much more effective because of this. The absence of narrative elements.
We are not entirely sure on what the motives of Semyon are. We know on one hand that he is a ruthless Russian gangster (or at least affiliated with gangsters), but he also seems genuinely interested in Anna — albeit for different reasons than what Anna might think. Anna’s motives are not entirely clear either. Is she seeking solace with a father-figure she so sorely misses in her life or is her aim just to find the relatives of the dead pregnant woman?
All these things combined makes the scenes tense and filled with uncertainties. Which then, in turn, makes us as the audience tense up. We want to leave, to get out of there, and hopefully take Anna with us.
It’s simple narrative trick and used many times before in all sorts of movies, but it works very well in Eastern Promises. It keeps the tension going for a very long time.
I highly recommend reading Steven Knight’s entire screenplay and then rewatch the movie again.
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In the 90s, Simon Lund Larsen was a production runner on a couple of movies, a sound engineer on others and a producer of some. He later founded two companies; one that made short films and one that made multiplayer online games. Sold one of the companies and dissolved the other.
Now he works at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and write short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. When he is not polishing his latest post on Medium, he can be found on Twitter as @SimonLundLarsen or at SimonLundLarsen.com