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.