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Movie Review: Eastern Promises

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Director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen of A History of Violence come together with Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) for a film that depicts the Russian criminal subculture festering in London's outskirts.

In the immigrant tradition, the subculture in London hasn't seen the majority of these people settle into expensive, centrally located residences. Instead, they have gravitated toward less expensive places such as the East End. Undiscovered by tourists, these communities have their own textures and history.

This mob crime thriller intricately interwoven with familial dramas is an emotional triangle involving Anna (Naomi Watts), a Russian midwife employed at a North London hospital who delivers a baby girl from a dying Russian teenager. Completing this triangle is Nikolai, a Russian-born, low level soldier in the Russian mob, and Kirill, the deranged and kill-crazy son of the mob boss.  Anna finds a diary belonging to the teenage mother who died giving birth that's written in Russian, which she can't read. She wants to find the infant's relatives but bits of information leads her to the crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who runs his operations from a Siberian restaurant. He translates the diary, but insists that she stop asking questions and turn the baby and diary over to him. Anna's mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) and her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), who know of the Russian mob's reputation for violence, try to convince her to give the diary to the police, but Anna idealistically wants to help the baby and continues to make inquiries. Evidently drugs, prostitution, sex, and murder are documented in the diary, and perhaps it reveals the name of the baby's father.

Nikolai is a good soldier and driver for the mob and he and his best friend Kirill, son of Semyon, are responsible for keeping the business running smoothly. That means beating and executing people — and these brutal scenes are gory. This film doesn't hold back on the violence. The fights and slashings are explosive and extremely shocking. The authenticity of the mannerisms and Russian slang is as real as it gets. At a recent press screening, David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen, and  Vincent Casell said that they hung out with genuine Russian thugs and got first-hand information in order to recreate events and stories they were told about the criminal underworld.

As the suspense continues, the result of Anna questioning everyone and some flashback scenes of the old Ukraine, she meets Nikolai and finds a sensitive quality in him which sparks romance. This romance doesn't take away from the action that jumps off the screen. You can be sure there are enough bloody sprees in this movie to have an audience totally involved. Don't think of this as another gruesome crime movie, because the underlying story of Nikolai's kindness yields a surprisingly good if questionable ending.

Viggo Mortensen turns in a great performance in the lead. He is cruel but charismatic in his portrayal of this "Mr. Go-To Man". Vincent Casell, who usually gets bizarre and over the top characters to play, is sensational.  Naomi Watts, whose range is without bounds, was fantastic. This breathtaking, compelling film is superb.

Directed by: David Cronenberg
Running time: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 14, 2007
Genre: Crime Drama, Thriller and Action
Distributor: Focus Features
MPAA Rating: R

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