Viggo Mortensen authors a distinctive, sinewy, and efficient performance as a Russian mob enforcer in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, while Naomi Watts so naturally plays her role as a midwife caught in the middle of something she doesn’t even want to understand that she nearly disappears into the background as a glorified extra.
In Eastern Promises, Viggo adds callousness to his previously established mean streak while the secrets of the London-based organized crime outfit that employs him start to crumble away, beginning with the birth of a child and the discovery of her mother’s diary.
Anna (Watts) has Russian lineage but can’t translate the journal entries on her own, so she takes it to the restaurant whose business card marks the most recent additions to the diary. She has no way of knowing that Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is not the kindly soul he seems, but rather the patriarch of a ruthless mob family steeped in the violent tradition of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood.
Paths cross, men get brutally murdered and a net of suspicion soon begins to envelope the restaurant and the mob, and Cronenberg takes the logical conclusions and the predictability of the action and makes them uniquely his.
Look back on his filmography as deeply as you want to go and you’ll find that Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly) has a Hitchcockian way of forcing the audience to watch violence. His vision and style are extremely voyeuristic, and at times, almost too cold and detached. But it works best in films like Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, which have to rely on bloodshed.
Watts is the kind of actor all of them should be, extremely capable, technically sound, interesting to watch for her actions and more interesting to watch for what she’s thinking. Witness her stellar stuff in 21 Grams or even King Kong. Unfortunately for her, Anna is an enabler in Eastern Promises and not a character sufficient enough to merit solely telling her story. She’s a complementary player for Mortensen in that respect, but it’s not a performance that will knock you over. In a strange way, she’s to be commended for that.
Viggo, on the other hand, has finally hit his stride. Whereas Watts can do just about anything she’s called upon to do, Mortensen has more John Wayne in him than John Gielgud. He relies on his physicality to express his innermost thoughts and feelings, and he simply can’t be in the background just because of the presence he carries.
Figuring out how to maximize that while keeping it to a minimum is a rare trick, and the real promise of Eastern Promises.