Eastern Promises

In 2005 David Cronenberg made a smart meditation on the effects of violence called A History of of Violence. It starred Viggo Mortensen. That film was marked by it’s lack of artifice–no special effects, no fancy camera movements, even the lighting looked flat and a little faded. It worked brilliantly.

Now this team is back to give us Eastern Promises. And they deliver in much the same fashion.

Naomi Watts plays Anna, a midwife in a London hospital who delivers a baby to a fourteen year old unknown who dies shortly afterwards. In an effort to find out who the next of kin were Anna follows a lead to a Russian restaurant where the girl supposedly worked. From there she enters the world of the Russian Mafia and it is at first a bright lively place that speaks to Anna’s roots. Her father was Russian. The leader of the gang is Semyon, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. At first he appears to be a kindly grandfather and Anna is very attracted to him as a father figure. But it is an act. In reality Semyon is the worst kind of gangster. He smuggles some on the side but his main line is luring teenage girls from small villages in the homeland to London where his organization gets them addicted to heroin and then prostitutes them, which is where the young mother comes in. But in this case she kept a diary, which Anna found on her and the gang very much wants to get its hands on it.

Anna is also attracted to Nickolai, played by Viggo Mortensen, though in a very different way. Nickolai is an ambitious thug, who currently drives the family’s car. He has vast experience in the post Soviet Russian demimonde, which is chronicled in the myriad tattoos on his chest, arms and legs. His membership in the gang is being sponsored by Kiril, Semyon’s wastrel son, played by Vincent Cassel.

The drama plays out expertly from those elements and I won’t give away the ending. In Eastern Promises Cronenberg uses all the elements from his previous film to tell this tragedy. The photography is more dynamic. The shots of the Russian food are vibrant, but the exteriors are gloomy and overcast like the London skies.

There are several scenes of graphic violence, throats being cut and all that where the effects are convincing. By now you’ve probably heard about the fight in the steam room. It is brutal. There are a lot of places where this film is hard to watch.

But the acting is terrific. Watts is good in a role that doesn’t really have a lot of meat to it. Mortensen is brooding and dangerous in a terrific performance. Mueller-Stahl is devastating as a ruthless mob boss who presents himself as a genial grandfather and community minded restaurateur. And Vincent Cassel turns in a good performance as a deeply insecure heir.

There is a twist at the end that I think detracts from the film. I can’t tell you why without giving it away so you’ll have to figure it out on your own.

Over all though Eastern Promises is a terrific film. I hope Croneneberg and Mortensen make more.

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