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Movie Review: Eastern Promises

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Two years ago David Cronenberg brought us A History of Violence, a film filled with fascinating characters and explosive violence. Now we have Cronenberg's latest film, also filled with fascinating characters and explosive violence. The film is called Eastern Promises, and while it does share some similarities, and a star, with the earlier film, they are different experiences.

This new film is set within the world of Russian mobsters operating in London. It is a film that is less about plot and more about the people who inhabit this world. Is it a perfect experience? No, at times it moves along at a sluggish pace which lulled me into complacency. Still, there is a depth here that will keep you interested throughout.

Eastern Promises opens with a bloody murder in a barber shop. A man goes in for a trim and winds up with a cut throat. It is an attention-grabbing way to open the tale. Immediately following this, we meet Tatiana. She is young and pregnant, and in severe need of help as she stumbles into a pharmacy. She is rushed to the hospital, where she is treated by a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts). Tatiana dies in childbirth, leaving Anna to find her family. This is a task that Anna takes to heart, using a diary found in the dead mother's bag as a starting point.

She enlists the aid of her Russian-born uncle to translate the diary. He is less than accommodating. Taking her mission very seriously, she sets out to find help. She finds herself at a restaurant run by the Russian mob kingpin, Semyon (Armin Mueller Stahl). Without telling her too much, he realizes what could be uncovered should the diary be translated and offers his assistance. That is the first thread that weaves into the tapestry of Eastern Promises.

The second thread goes back to that throat-slashing at the beginning. We meet Semyon's son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell). Here is a man with a quick temper and a severe mean streak blended with his partying ways. He is accompanied at all times by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who acts as driver, bodyguard, and undertaker. Kirill was involved with that murder, as a few players jockey for position under Semyon's control. Everyone is seeking to be the next to take the reins of the crime family.

The stories converge when Anna meets Nikolai. The two seem to have a mutual attraction, not necessarily a romantic one, but definitely a sense of trust. On the surface, there is no reason for her to trust him, a rather scary Russian mobster. Still, there is a curious chemistry between the two. This relationship is what makes Anna realize just how much danger she is in, and makes Nikolai find a touch of humanity within himself.

This is one of those films that has an interesting plot, although it is the characters that are more interesting. To go forward with a plot description would do everyone a disservice, as it would go towards revealing bits about the characters that would be better left for your own discovery.

Naomi Watts' Anna is an interesting character. Her dedication to finding family for the orphaned baby is extraordinary, and while it may be seen as unreasonable, it is a personal duty to her. Watts does a fine job of bringing this sense of independence to her life as she goes about her duty. Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai is a cold figure, but a figure who hides depth behind the dark sunglasses. He is not averse to doling out brutal violence when it is called for, and he never loses his focus, yet there is a softness to be found beneath that exterior. The supporting cast is no less good. Both Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassell stand out in their performances. Mueller-Stahl has a kindly grandfather type quality as he goes about his daily work. Cassell, on the other hand, portrays a wide range of emotions in short spans of time.

While the movie does slow down for stretches, enough to start me towards disinterest, there was enough to keep me coming back for more. Each time I went to the brink, Cronenberg brought me back. Usually, it was through Nikolai, a fascinating character who is at the center of both prime story threads. The icing on the cake was the no holds barred two-on-one fight at the bath house. It is a violent and brutal affair that is notable for having a naked Viggo in the middle of the action. It is one of those scenes that is as far removed from the choreographed affairs that we usually get as can be.

David Cronenberg's direction is strong, allowing the characters to breath free from the constraints of a purely plot driven story. Credit also to the screenplay by Steven Knight, who has delivered a character-driven script. While both are strong, it was not something that I completely recognized until after letting the film sink in. It may not be as strong as Cronenberg's last outing, but there is no denying that there is a lot going on and a lot to like here.

Bottom line. If you a re looking for something that has a feeling of familiarity, but delivers something new, Eastern Promises needs to be on your "to see" list. Very good performances, an interesting story, and a runtime that doesn't test your bladder.

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