Mesmerizing Eastern Promises delivers crime thrills


Canadian film director David Cronenberg has a long, interesting history of grappling with psychological themes in horror and science fiction work. Recently, he’s become the master of the crime thriller, a reputation earned by A History of Violence and now enhanced with Eastern Promises, a breathtaking story of the disturbing world of Russian mobsters in contemporary London.

In typical Cronenberg fashion, the brutal underworld is revealed by layers of subtlety, deception and intrigue. Yet, there’s more to it than just mind games, as scenes of bloody violence telegraph the central conceit. After all, with the star presence of Viggo Mortensen, a history of violence is almost certain to reoccur in this milieu of the Russian mob.

The story of Eastern Promises takes place around Christmas and New Year’s, but holiday cheer is noticeably lacking, and even the London weather is dreary and gloomy to boot.

The action starts with a mob hit in a barbershop where the victim has his throat slashed by a razor. Soon after that, a pregnant Russian teen collapses in a pharmacy and is rushed to a hospital, where midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) saves the baby as the mother dies in childbirth.

Anna retrieves a diary from the dead girl’s belongings, and takes it home for research, hoping to locate the girl’s family. She’s the daughter of a Russian father and British mother (Sinead Cusack). Her irascible Russian uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) finds disturbing revelations in the diary, namely that the Russian girl was forced into a prostitution ring and that names of mobsters are revealed.

Though Uncle Stepan, who claims to have worked for the KGB, warns Anna to steer clear of the Russian underworld, she can’t resist following up on the business card of an old-fashioned Russian restaurant that was found tucked into the diary. The restaurant’s owner is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), courtly and well-mannered, and he shows great interest in the diary, but for reasons entirely unrelated to solving the girl’s sad fate.

Unknowingly, Anna has breached the inner sanctum of the local Russian mob, and Semyon is capable of extreme measures to cover up the dirty secrets contained in the diary.

A key player in the mob scene is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the chauffeur for Semyon and the mob boss’s psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). It becomes apparent that Semyon’s gang was involved in the barbershop murder. Given to excessive drinking, Kirill is a volatile character who may lack the restraint and discretion to properly carry out Semyon’s dirty work.

Nikolai is obviously much more than just a driver, and his tightly-controlled demeanor makes him appealing to Anna as an unlikely confidante. Driven by ambition, Nikolai seems to play all sides of the street, and yet he aspires to a higher job in the organization, one that might be fitting to the number of tattoos he acquired in Russia for his criminal career. There’s always a nice bit of tension between cool-headed Nikolai and the impulsive Kirill.

The twists and turns that run through the plot are rife with unpredictable results. Nikolai takes a keen interest in Anna, and it’s not just for her connection to the dead girl’s diary. Then Semyon asks Nikolai to get rid of Anna’s Uncle Stepan, who becomes a target for having read the diary.

There is probably no more jarring turn of events than the London bathhouse scene where a naked Nikolai has a deadly fight with two knife-wielding assassins. The brutality of this particular showdown, where Nikolai is most vulnerable, is likely to be the most memorable and talked-about moment of violence in the entire film.

A brutal efficiency is at work in Eastern Promises to make this film a lean, effective crime thriller with enough twists and surprises to prove truly mesmerizing. Following up on his success in A History of Violence, director Cronenberg proves that he knows how to triumph in this crime genre. And yet, the achievement of this film belongs as much to the terrific actors, where not one of the key players delivers anything less than a stellar performance.

Tim Riley writes television and movie reviews for Lake County News.