Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London's most notorious East European organized crime families, headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose front is a Trans-Siberian London restaurant. Semyon's volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) does the dirty work, while Nikolai quietly and efficiently cleans up the mess. It is Christmas time, and Nikolai crosses paths with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife, who is affected by the death of a fourteen year old girl who dies while giving birth. In a bid to find the baby's relatives, Anna looks for answers in the girl's personal diary, and while Anna's mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) is ambivalent, her Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) is concerned, as the secrets revealed about the criminal Vory brotherhood will put them all at risk.
Review by Louise Keller:
'I am just a driver; I go left, right and straight ahead,' Viggo Mortensen's Nikolai states. It's a chilling portrayal of another darkly complex character for Mortensen, and while David Cronenberg's film lacks the completeness of A History of Violence, its intrigue, contrasts and wonderfully described Russian life bubbling beneath the surface in London's underbelly, is one we have not seen before. Like Steven Knight's first screenplay Dirty Pretty Things, which exposed a world of organ trafficking with illegal immigrants as the source, Eastern Promises prises open our eyes to a morality-devoid world of East European mafia that callously exchanges people for goods. Mortensen wears Armani and a deadpan expression for much of the film, but in its memorable, climactic scene set in a bathhouse, he wears nothing but tattoos, in an incredibly choreographed conflict that includes bloody stabbings and a graphic eye-gouging that will make saunas off-limits for some time to come.
The violence is disturbing and plays a large part in the film's seedy tone, beginning with a shocking initiation in a small suburban barber's shop. Quickly, we meet the key players, and it's Nikolai's relationship with Vincent Cassel's wild-card thug Kirrill that captures our attention. Cassel is marvellous as the out-of-control mafia son unable to live up to his father's expectations, making Kirrill both loathsome and pathetic. It's a showy role and the contrast between Nikolai (who stubs his cigarettes on his tongue) and the hyperactive, latent homosexual Kirrill who cannot hold liquor or exercise control, is striking. Armin Mueller-Stahl unsettles as callous crime boss Semyon, who looks as though caviar could not soil his white apron, while Naomi Watts effectively portrays an ordinary English girl, swept into a world she doesn't understand.
Perhaps most disturbing is the narration of the fourteen year old girl whose dreams of 'a better life', as expressed in her diary, result in rape, drug addiction and death. Howard Shore's melancholy score with its haunting violin phrases perfectly reflects the melancholy of the girl's story, while the scenes in Semyon's London restaurant, exude an authenticity one could expect to see in Russia. It feels as though Cronenberg has cut short his ending; we are deprived of complete emotional satisfaction and resolution. Nonetheless, there's plenty of bite amid the promises and much food for thought.
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EASTERN PROMISES (R18+)
CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Sinéad Cusack, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jerzy Skolimowski
PRODUCER: Robert Lantos, Paul Webster
DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
SCRIPT: Steven Knight
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Suschitzky
EDITOR: Ronald Sanders
MUSIC: Howard Shore
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Carol Spier
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 25, 2007