First, a confession. I am a huge Cronenberg fan. I like his violently red vision in classics like The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981), but even more the eerily disturbing Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996), and Spider (2002). Naked Lunch (1991) and Videodrome (1983) have their own hallucinogenic lunacy that disturbs in a different way.
Eastern Promises begins with a birth and a death, coinciding and overlapping. Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), a young Russian girl, stumbles into a pharmacy begging for help. She promptly passes out in a puddle of her own blood. She is rushed to the hospital where the midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is one of the medical team working on her. Tatiana does not survive the birth. She leaves behind a child and a diary written in Russian, which Anna tries to use to track down any family the girl might have.
Anna unwittingly stumbles into the violent criminal Russian underworld of London. She enlists the help of a seemingly respectable Russian restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to help her translate the diary. Little does she know that Semyon is actually responsible for Tatiana’s condition and that he is a part of the Vory v Zakonye (“thieves in law”) a criminal organization.
Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a driver for the organization, and he is close to both Semyon and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Anna lands herself squarely in the middle of more trouble than she can handle when she starts getting involved with Semyon, not knowing that Tatiana was working in one of his brothels and that Semyon is the one who impregnated her.
Nikolai is actually not what he seems to be at first glance, either. It turns out that he is working undercover to try and infiltrate the Vory, an operation that has been a long time in the making and which is now in part jeopardized by Anna’s involvement.
This could so easily have been another bad-accented gangster exploitation movie if handled by another director, but instead it has depth and weight. Every action is underscored by a wealth of background work and there’s a fullness to the telling that shows how much is left unsaid.
Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel both impress and come across as completely plausible Russian gangsters. The lines spoken in Russian sound true enough, and their broken English rings just as true, which is a relief. The interaction between their two characters Nikolai and Kirill is underscored by a kind of romance and seduction that is really interesting to watch. Kirill’s troubled relationship with his father is of the variety you would expect to see in a Greek tragedy, and all this comes into play in the action, but with the sliding subtlety of a master craftsman’s handling. Naomi Watts is completely believable as a midwife and her character has depth and a richness to it that isn’t common for either the genre, nor for female characters as a whole.
The action starts in medias res and it ends the same way, and it actually took me a while to settle on why. This is not Anna’s story, or Kirill’s, or even Nikolai’s. This is the story of the fourteen year old Tatiana, whose diary runs as a red thread in her voice-over through the action and even rounds it off when we get the closing shot of Nikolai at Semyon’s restaurant, but even more than that, this is actually the baby’s story. Tatiana’s child is the main focus here, and that is actually so cleverly done that it underscores the violence and gives it a human resonance. Kirill’s moment of anagnorisis comes when he is gently persuaded to not kill the child and gives in to Nikolai.
There are many reasons to commend this movie, little moments like when Semyon demonstrates his ability to play the fiddle to two of his young nieces, or when Nikolai handles the post-mortem dismemberment of a rival gangster with the ease of someone who has done it all before, or the fight sequence in the Turkish bath where Nikolai takes on two fully dressed rival gangsters completely buck naked, making him so blatantly vulnerable you wince for him when he gets thrown across the room. There are other things too, like the young man who is obviously of diminished capacity, but who kills and gets killed because he can’t grasp the full extent of his situation. There are many things like that and that is more than enough to make this a well above par gangster movie.
Eastern Promises is directed by David Cronenberg starring Naomi Watts (Anna), Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai), Vincent Cassel (Kirill), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Josef Altin (Ekrem), Mina E. Mina (Azim), Aleksander Mikic (Soyka), Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse (Tatiana), Sinéad Cusack (Helen), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stephan).
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