Nikolai in Eastern Promises
Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin, Russian Mafiya “undertaker” and chauffeur with a few secrets of his own
London, Christmas 2006
Film: Eastern Promises
Release Date: September 8, 2007
Director: David Cronenberg
Costume Designer: Denise Cronenberg
WARNING! Spoilers possible!
Eastern Promises is a great film, but there is a noteworthy twist that is hard to ignore when discussing the main character. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it before reading the post!
Despite the film’s setting at Christmas, I chose to post about Eastern Promises today since May 1st is May Day, currently known as “The Day of Spring and Labour” in Russia after its illegal origins prior to the February Revolution in 1917.
When we first meet Nikolai, he is presented as a simple – if observant – driver for the local vor v zakone in London. As the story progresses, we learn more about this complex character. Is he a mob undertaker with a heart of gold, is he a pragmatic and power-hungry Machiavellian mobster, or is he solely an undercover FSB agent who makes Joe Pistone look like Barney Fife?
What’d He Wear?
Nikolai has a very specific look through the film, wearing a black suit with a solid neutral shirt, a dark silk tie, and a black raincoat, not to mention the various tattoos identifying his history from a Siberian prison through the ranks of the Russian Mafiya. Both of his suits are black, reflective both of his unofficial position as the London organization’s “undertaker” and his job as Kirill’s driver since most chauffeurs wear black uniforms.
The Single-Breasted Suit
The first suit Nikolai wears in the film is a traditional two-piece black wool suit. He typically wears this for more day-to-day business matters.
The single-breasted jacket has notch lapels, a welted breast pocket, and jetted hip pockets. The shoulders are padded and the rear is ventless. It fastens with a 2-button front and there are decorative 3-button cuffs at the end of each sleeve.
Nikolai’s suit trousers have flat fronts with a low rise and plain-hemmed bottoms. His belt is black leather with a silver squared clasp.
Nikolai only wears this suit with one shirt, a very fashion-forward metallic blue-gray silk shirt. The shirt has a spread collar and a fly front to conceal the buttons.
The rear of the shirt is darted on the sides for a slimmer fit on Nikolai’s athletic torso and the rounded barrel cuffs fasten with buttons.
The most common tie worn with this suit and shirt combination is a dark gray pinpoint silk tie with a series of mini-grids.
When Nikolai and Kirill are confronted by Semyon about a murder, Nikolai wears this suit and shirt with a solid black silk tie.
The Double-Breasted Suit
Nikolai’s more fashion-oriented suit is a double-breasted black wool suit, which he wears for more special occasions, such as his visit to the brother with Kirill or meeting Anna’s family in the restaurant.
Nikolai’s double-breasted suit jacket has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets. The front has a 6×2 button stance, but Nikolai only buttons the top of the two functioning buttons. The 4-button cuffs on each sleeve match the black buttons on the front.
The suit jacket is double-breasted with wide peak lapels that curve up toward the shoulders. The jacket shoulders are natural with roped sleeve heads.
We don’t see much of this suit’s trousers, but they appear to also be flat front with plain-hemmed bottoms.
When Nikolai accompanies Kirill to the brothel, he wears this suit with a light gray cotton shirt. This shirt has a very large spread collar and a plain, placket-less front for the white buttons.
The cuffs are mitred with two buttons, but Nikolai only fastens the inner button. There is also a gauntlet button on each sleeve, naturally kept buttoned by Nikolai.
His tie for this visit is a black silk necktie, worn loosely after the drinking and whoring commences.
A few days later, Nikolai again wears this suit when he meets with Anna and her family to pick up Tatiana’s diary. For this outing, he neutralizes his warm feelings for Anna by dressing the part of a cold-hearted traditional hitman with a white shirt and black tie; there’s a reason Tarantino picked this look for his Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction criminals.
The shirt is white broadcloth with a moderately spread collar, white buttons down the front placket, and rounded button cuffs. He again wears the black silk necktie.
When we see Nikolai at the end of the film, having evidently reached Vor status, he wears this suit with the white shirt, this time sporting an elegant burgundy silk tie.
Outerwear and Accessories
Nikolai, both for form and function, wears a black raincoat through most of the film. While most men’s suit-oriented raincoats have a button-fastened front, Nikolai’s has a black zip front concealed by a fly flap. There are, however, pointed-tab cuffs that close on one of two sleeve buttons.
There are open slash pockets on the sides but no other pockets, giving the coat a clean look of simple elegance compared to the traditional trench coat. It extends down to Nikolai’s mid-thigh and has a short rear vent.
Naturally, the raincoat is made of waterproof material, possibly a wool-silk blend based on the way it shines under the light.
He completes his outerwear by donning a pair of black leather driving gloves with a snap at the wrist to secure them firmly on his hands.
His sunglasses, the shield through which he can observe the world, are black plastic wraparounds with silver accents on the sides. The manufacturer is unknown to me, but Things You Saw In A Movie has found a pair of Armani sunglasses in a similar style. Nikolai’s sunglasses don’t have the unmistakable Armani logo, but they do seem like a pair of specs he would wear.
Nikolai’s watch, on the other hand (pun), has been identified by countless sources as a Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control with a stainless case and link bracelet with a round white face.
The Master Control is a fine luxury watch with a 219-piece automatic movement, Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 899. The 39mm stainless steel case is water resistant down to 167 feet. The dial is silvered sunray-brushed with dauphine hands and rhodium-plated numerals and hour markers. The standard bracelet is an alligator strap with a double folding buckle, but Nikolai wears a stainless steel link bracelet instead.
His shoes are a pair of black patent leather 2-eyelet balmorals, naturally worn with black socks.
Nikolai must be easy to shop for; like so many characters on this blog, his clothing and accessories tend to be black. When he meets with the Vors to discuss his history before being crowned, he wears only a pair of short black boxer briefs and his medallions.
The two silver medallions are both worn on a single silver chain around his neck. They appear to be religious in nature. One is round and the other is square. Can anyone identify who the saints on Nikolai’s medallions are?
Go Big or Go Home
One of the most significant parts of Nikolai’s appearance is non-clothing related – his tattoos. Viggo Mortensen recalls the four-hour process to apply nearly four dozen tattoos when he would get into character as Nikolai. The tattoos are brilliantly explained here, telling Nikolai’s story as a three-time prisoner from Siberia who has robbed and killed throughout his career and now bows down to no one as a vor v zakone (“thief-in-law”) after his ceremony in front of Semyon and the other Vors.
Mortensen himself commented:
Some of the tattoos were humorous – and some were quite poetic. On the instep of my right foot, one said “’Where are you going?’ On the instep of the other foot, another said “What the hell do you care?” One of my favourites said – ‘Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream”, which is so beautiful and sad. Another said – “I’m a slave to fate but no lackey to the law’, which translates to ‘I’ll accept my lot in life without complaining, but don’t expect me to show you any respect or listen to anything you say; I don’t care how hard you hit me.’
Mortensen recalls a story when, after filming, he visited a local London restaurant without having removed the tattoos. The patrons and staff immediately clammed up with fear, evidently recognizing his story from his visible tattoos. Mortensen quickly realized what happened and explained his identity and the reason for the tattoos, but this incident just goes to show what sort of power Nikolai carried with him without even having to say a word.
The film’s director, David Cronenberg, further stated:
The criminals in Russian jails say that your tattoo is your life. Your tattoos on your body are who you are. If you come in with no tattoos, you don’t exist. They must be accurate; they tell what crimes you’ve committed, what jail time you’ve served, what your sexual orientation is and more. If you were to have a tattoo that says you are higher up in the crime world than you are – you would be seriously punished, if not killed. It is said that tattoos are one’s passport, but it’s a very obscure country that the passport is from; the Russian criminal life is a rather small world. So the tattoos you’ve branded yourself with are determining your own fate and are also your private passport to your private world.
Nikolai certainly earns his reputation for badassery. He prepares the frozen corpse of a traitorous associate for “undertaking”, telling the associate’s killer:
Now I’m going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers. You might want to leave room.
Without missing a beat, Nikolai then takes the cigarette he’s been casually smoking, flicks the ash, and extinguishes it on his tongue.
On his goddamn tongue. While this might sound like a scripted measure to enhance Nikolai’s presence, Cronenberg explains that it was Mortensen’s idea:
Even a simple thing, as when he’s cutting the fingers off the corpse with his necktie flung over the shoulder and putting the cigarette out on his tongue to intimidate this guy who is demeaning him as just being a driver – that’s all Viggo. That’s not in the script. That’s something Viggo came up with that I loved.
Nikolai isn’t just a badass for his calmness in the face of violence, he also has a quick wit… in two languages. When Anna decides to confide in him about the diary, he yields her questioning like a pro:
Anna: Have you ever met a girl named Tatiana?
Nikolai: I meet lots of girls named Tatiana.
Anna: She was pregnant.
Nikolai: Ah, in that case… no, I’ve never heard of her.
He can drink with the best of them without losing control like his volatile friend Kirill, taking shots of vodka and brandy straight from the bottle. All booze brands – except Ekrem’s can of Foster’s – are fictional, though, so Nikolai and the others are seen drinking Lajintsev vodka (evidently a rebranded Stoli) as well as a bottle of VSOP cognac, designed to resemble Martell.
Nikolai is also an incessant smoker. Since this isn’t a product placement-heavy film, the pack is clearly seen but any sort of branding is obscured. The pack looks like it could be a Benson & Hedges, but someone with more knowledge of English and/or Russian cigarettes would need to step in and help figure it out. It could just be another case of fictional branding.
Nikolai’s most badass moment is also his least clothed one, unfortunately for screencapping purposes. After he unwittingly takes the bait and visits a London bath house for a meeting, he is confronted by two leather-clad assassins wielding linoleum-cutting knives. (Cronenberg refused to include guns in the film, saying that the career criminal characters would be just as efficient with knives and could tell inquisitive police that they are linoleum cutters.)
Nikolai immediately realizes the setup and leaps into action, abandoning his towel and fighting back against the two Chechen assassins while completely nude. Despite the two clothed assassins’ obvious advantages, Nikolai fights like hell and – although he takes a few deep cuts – defeats the bastards.
How to Get the Look
Nikolai wears two suits during the film, but his primary suit while conducting business among the vor v zakone of the London underworld gives the impression of a fearless and professional criminal.
- Black wool suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with notch lapels, 2-button front, 3-button cuffs, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, padded shoulders, and ventless rear
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Metallic blue-gray silk shirt with spread collar, concealed fly placket, and rounded button cuffs
- Dark gray pinpoint silk necktie with a pattern of scattered mini-grids
- Black patent leather 2-eyelet balmorals
- Black dress socks
- Black leather belt with a silver squared clasp
- Black wool-silk blend raincoat with a large collar, zip fly front, slash side pockets, pointed-end tab cuffs, and short rear vent
- Black leather snap-top driving gloves
- Silver necklace chain with two saint medallions
- Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control stainless wristwatch with a stainless link bracelet and round white face
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Anger is dangerous. It makes people do stupid things.
According to IMDB:
To prepare for his role, Viggo Mortensen traveled alone to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountain region of Siberia, where he spent five days driving around without a translator. He read books on the gangs of the vory v zakone (thieves in law), Russian prison culture and the importance of prison tattoos as criminal résumés, and perfected his character’s Siberian accent and learned lines in Russian, Ukrainian, and English. During filming, he used worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters and decorated his trailer with copies of Russian icons.
Just another indication that the true badass here really is Mortensen.
Let me add my two cents, if I may.
First, DB suit is not 6×2 – it’s 4×1 with quite a high button stance, making it easy to mistake one for another,
Second. Those medallions – squared one is likely a metal replica of an icon of some sort – St.Mary, Holy Trinity or St.Michael, or whatever. It’s a common sight in Russia – I mean, common as in ‘common folk’, not as in ‘gangsters, gangsters everywhere’.
Third – those cigarettes are of ‘Sobranie’ brand – and this pack has Russian tax stamp. Don’t know why would anyone get cigarettes from across the Europe, but still, they did.
Being Russian, I cannot omit mentioning Russian idioma – “развесистая клюква”, razvesistaya kluykva. It means something both stereotypical and ridiculous and signing obvious lack of knowledge on subject – think of drunk cosmonaut Andropov of “Armageddon” fame, or how was Russian air base caught in a snowstorm, in the 4th of July – “Independence day”, or bear cavalry or whatever. To us Russians it’s not as offending as it is funny – seriously, container ship in the end of “Fantastic Four” was called ‘Head of the Tip of Toe’!
So, when I watched this movie, I’ve noticed two things – Cronenberg and Mortensen tried; and Cronenberg and Mortensen failed. It may look authentic for someone who have heard something from the news or heard something somewhere from somebody, but for a person who is a bit more used to such, um, individuals, those, um, attempts of replicating are not impressing. Nineties were violent in Russia, and those gangsters who survived – they were not smarter or wiser; survivors were more violent and aggressive, their lack of morals brought them on top of the food chain. Many of them were ex-sportsmen – boxers, samboists; many of them were Caucasic – Georgians, Chechens, Dagestanis. How do they say, “you can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of girl”? Of course, money didn’t make them smarter or more sophisticated – they dressed richer, but not better, they ate at expensive restaurants, but behaved like pigs, they had beauty queens as their wifes, but treated them like dirt. When police came in force, ‘relatively’ smarter ones went legal – but didn’t lose old habits; now Russian mafiya isn’t even Russian en masse – it mainly consists of Caucasic criminals straight from auls, bad tempered and not clever at all – but not the less violent. So, for a guy who is familiar with those individuals, “Eastern Promises” is like a fairy tale.
As a side note, I train in and teach Filipino martial arts, with a big focus on stick and knife fighting. I stress to my students that you really do not want to go up against someone with a knife unarmed, and sometimes encourage them to watch the sauna scene from ‘Eastern Promises.’ It highlights the point (no pun intended!) that even if you do survive an encounter with a knife-wielding assailant, you will probably be very, very messed up afterwards.
Been looking forward to this one for some time. Excellent! I love this film! Viggo Mortensen is one of the greatest actors ever and is one of my favourites.
The three medallions I am pretty sure are as follows: the square medal is most definitely a Saint nicholas medal (very significant Saint to orthodox Church), the oval is a miraculous medal (mother Mary), and the other circular one I would be willing to bet is a Saint Benedict medallion.
All of these you can find for dirt cheap on Etsy. These medals are very small really, but other sizes can usually be found.
The three medallions I am pretty sure are as follows: the square medal is most definitely a Saint nicholas medal (very significant Saint to orthodox Church), the oval is a miraculous medal (mother Mary), and the other circular one I would be willing to bet is a st Benedict medal.
All of which are dirt cheap on Etsy, including the chain you want. Religious medallions are very quite small unfortunately but other sizes are available. Sometimes you see the odd nicholas medals on eBay sold from Russia.