Eastern Promises, the latest film from director David Cronenberg, is a crime drama that obeys the conventions of its genre while neatly transcending them. Tightly written and masterfully directed, the film is thoroughly engaging and fresh off it’s win at the Toronto Film Festival, seems poised to become one of the year’s best.
The plot concerns the Vory V Zakone, an organization of Russian mobsters operating in London. Opening with a jolting murder, the film shifts to Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a Russian-born midwife working at a London hospital. One night a 14-year-old Russian girl dies in childbirth and Anna decides to find the girl’s relatives. In her efforts she discovers the girl’s diary, which is written in Cyrillic, and asks Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of a local Russian restaurant, to translate it for her.
This proves to be a mistake, however, as Semyon is the head of the notorious Vory. As the connection between the pregnant girl’s death and the crime family becomes clear, Semyon sends his trusted driver and henchman Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to effectively deal with “the woman who knew too much.” When Anna’s uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) translates a copy of the diary and unravels the mystery, the danger becomes palpable and the stage set for bloody confrontation.
I’ll stop there to avoid ruining any of the film’s surprises. As always, the less you know going in, the better. The film is narrated sporadically with excerpts from the dead girl’s diary. Personally, I usually find most voice-over narration annoying and unnecessary, but in this case it succeeds, and adds an unexpected emotional layer to a heartbreaking tale of exploitation and abuse that is all too common in certain parts of the world.
One of the main reasons to see the film is the strong performances. Armin Mueller-Stahl manages to be warm and sinister in the same moment, giving the crime boss a presence as piercing as his blue eyes. His son, Kirill, is played by the French actor Vincent Cassel, doing his best Sonny Corleone impression. It’s a one-note role, but Cassel attacks it with frightening zeal. Naomi Watts plays Anna as a well-intentioned and smart woman who finds herself in way over her head. While it’s not as flashy as some of her previous roles, Watts is very good, though it’s ultimately her co-star who truly shines in the film’s standout performance.
Which brings me to Viggo Mortensen. As Nikolai, Mortensen is nothing short of remarkable, completely disappearing into his heavily-tattooed character and speaking in both Russian and flawlessly accented English. Hardly a cardboard villain, Nikolai is easily the most compelling character in the movie. In spite of earlier scenes of furious — and chillingly callous — violence, he nevertheless gains some of the audience’s sympathies as he compelling presents his internal conflict with subtlety and nuance, often using only his eyes. It may very well be the best performance of his career thus far, topping even his recent work in another Cronenberg thriller, A History of Violence. Someone, nominate this man for an Oscar already!
In addition to the fine acting, the film is aided by a lovely orchestral score from consistent Cronenberg collaborator and Oscar-winner Howard Shore. His understated music does what a score is supposed to do, enhancing the action and heightening the emotion without drawing attention to itself. “You must make the wood cry,” Semyon tells a young violinist at one point in the film, advice that Shore surely does not need.
Praise must also go to Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) for the screenplay, which feels almost like it could have been adapted from a novel, such is it’s complexity. That it was written directly for the screen only makes the achievement more impressive. Finally, any review of the film would be incomplete without at least mentioning “the bathhouse scene.” I won’t describe it here, since it’s the most memorable scene in the movie, other than to say that it sets a new standard for raw physicality. It’s David Cronenberg at his bloody best. Mr. Cronenberg, who has made a career of plumbing the depths of man-made horror in films such as Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, continues his recent fascination with films dealing with the psychological repercussions of violence. Though the film deals with unpleasant subjects (rape, sex slavery, corpse disposal, etc.), it never feels gratuitous. It is because of Cronenberg’s ability to transform a genre flick into a commentary on the human condition, tackling questions of loyalty, hypocrisy, personal responsibility and morality, that the film is ultimately successful.