"Eastern Promises" is director David Cronenberg's second bid in a row for attaining mainstream success, and is most certainly a better film in almost every way than 2005's shallow, criminally overrated "A History of Violence
." Of course, coming from a lauded veteran filmmaker who has primarily made a living creating wildly offbeat pictures that would send the casual Hollywood moviegoer retching in disgust and confusion while running for the exits, his idea of a conventional studio effort is still a step or two away from vanilla entertainment. Nevertheless, watching his last two movies, Cronenberg's typically atypical style is so marginalized that one would never guess who they have been directed by without the end credits giving the information away.
In a low-key role that doesn't ask a whole lot from her in the grand scheme of things, Naomi Watts (2005's "King Kong
") stars as Anna, a native Londoner and professional midwife who witnesses the simultaneous birth of a baby girl and death of her 14-year-old mother, Tatiana (Sarah Jeanne-Labrosse). Taking home the deceased teen's diary, Anna is at a loss for understanding the Russian writing, but intrigued by what could possibly offer answers pertaining to her life and untimely death. A business card in the diary leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian Russian Restaurant, owned by the authoritative Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). She innocently hopes he might be able to help her with the translation, but as the head of a major organized crime familysomething Anna has no way of realizingSamyon knows she poses a direct threat if the secrets held within the diary get out.
A quiet and measured drama marked with abruptly disquieting bursts of graphic violence, "Eastern Promises" is crisply made by David Cronenberg and cleanly written by Steven Knight. The film's pacing and tone may be too subdued for some tastes, but it is this unforced storytelling simplicity that is most welcome. The central set-piecea barbarous, breathlessly exciting fight to the death in a bathhouse involving a fully nude Viggo Mortensen (2004's "Hidalgo
")is the only truly action-oriented moment, and it is masterfully pulled off. Viewed solely on the basis of the plot and its course of events, there is little else that is too striking or original. By being guided by such an assured hand, though, what might have seemed tired is suddenly invigorated. Cronenberg very wisely allows the narrative and its characterseach of them faceted with unexpectedly complicated and humanistic layersto evolve and develop naturally, all of the pieces leading toward a conclusion that is logical yet understated.
Viggo Mortensen, having previously teamed with the director on "A History of Violence
," mounts a very, very different kind of part as Nikolai. The cool, creepily calm longtime driver for Semyon's in-family crime ring, Nikolai is steadfastly obedient to the demands made upon him. In little spurts, however, there appears to be more to the cold-blooded Nikolai than meets the eye. When he is egged on by best friend Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's unhinged grown son, to bed a young prostitute, Nikolai tells her after the fact that she doesn't belong where she is and gives her enough money to make her way back home. In his dealings with Anna, too, Nikolai warns her about sticking her nose where it doesn't belong, which is at intriguing odds with the audience's expectations that he wouldn't think twice about killing her himself if need be. In what could be one of his richest and most fully inhabitive performances to date, Mortensen owns the film as the Russian-accented Nikolai, able to suggest a great deal without having to open his mouth.
As Anna, Naomi Watts acts without blemish, but isn't afforded any demanding or veritably memorable scenes. It's a small character with a large amount of screen time, and Watts fulfills the requirements of portraying a woman who grows to care about and willingly risks her life for an orphaned newborn because of a relatable loss she has recently been dealt. As the powerful, aging Semyon, Armin Mueller-Stahl (1999's "The Thirteenth Floor
") is mesmerizing for every moment he is in front of the camera. Mueller-Stahl, somewhat like Mortensen, exhibits an overwhelming command and doesn't so much as have to raise his voice to achieve it. Finally, Vincent Cassel (2005's "Derailed
") superbly ingratiates Kirill, a man of questionable sanity and, suggestively, questionable sexuality, with unassuming depth and even sympathy. Who Kirill is at the end of the film is both the same and inextricably different from who he is at the beginning, and it is Cronenberg's willingness to explore the varied sides of a person's mind and being that sets them apart from the one-dimensional clichés usually found in this genre.
"Eastern Promises" is a solid film told well. It isn't perfect. As mentioned, the story itself is old-hat, despite receiving a few fresh touchups. The Christmas settingthe timeline runs from December 20 to New Year's Eveis superfluous and poorly defined; from the looks of it here, people in London don't so much as exchange gifts or put up a tree during the holidays. The occasional narration by the late Tatiana, who reads passages from her diary, is flawed in its conception because she speaks in English even though it is confirmed that the diary is in Russian. For this fan of David Cronenberg, it would be a welcome change to see him return for his next movie to the bravery and out-there quirkiness that has defined the majority of his career. "Eastern Promises" is an ultimately satisfying venture with a few spot-on acting turns, but it is a tad too ordinary for a director who thrives when he is anything but.