Eastern Promises

Director: David Cronenberg

What appeared to be the half-British, half-Russian cousin of David Cronenberg’s previous film A History Of Violence, has been steadily building up momentum this award’s season and now with the recent release of Easter Promises on DVD, this haunting masterpiece will hopefully get the respect it deserves from audiences around the globe. It may be due to Cronenberg’s self-described “existentialist underpinnings,” but the director admits he’s often drawn to “enclosed hermetically sealed subcultures,” such as the one used as the backdrop of this story of the Russian mob in England. It seemed to be a topic without much interest when the production began but after the shocking poisoning of Russian KGB officer became international news, suddenly Cronenberg’s topic became “radioactively hot,” as he proclaimed on the DVD featurette. As the film opens, we’re shown a brutal organized crime slaying in a barber shop that disturbingly appears to be business as usual but then we’re even more saddened by the onscreen death of a young pregnant teenager who collapses on the floor of a drugstore and later perishes in the hospital. The time of the girl’s death coincides with the birth of her baby named Christine by midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) in honor of the Christmas holiday which is just days away. Disturbed by the death of the young mother without any family, Anna decides to investigate the girl’s lineage herself via clues found in the diary she kept which is written in Russian. In addition to the diary, Anna discovers a business card for a Russian restaurant where the deceptively charming yet mysterious owner played by Armin-Mueller Stahl offers to translate the diary. Perhaps as nervous as we are about the man and his offer, Anna makes a copy of the girl’s writings and leaves the original with her Russian uncle, an old-fashioned man whose curmudgeon manner wears on Anna and her mother but it’s quickly revealed that when it comes to his homeland, he knows much more than one would assume and thus advises his niece that she’s getting in over her head when the diary reveals that the girl was part of the Eastern European prostitution trafficking in England. Writer Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) was advised by the BBC to write a script solely on the modern day sexual slavery in London but seeing the narrative potential in making the story more accessible, Knight wisely chose to have British Anna (who has Russian lineage herself) serve as the bridge for the audience when she goes between the civil modern life and the dark underground lurking underneath.

A brilliant catalyst for the situations is found in Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen in one of his most impressive performances, who, hired as a chauffeur for the family works directly below Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the fiery and dangerous son of Mueller-Stahl who shares a closer relationship with Nikolai than he does with his father. “I’m just a driver,” Nikolai tells Anna repeatedly when she questions just what it is that he does for the family but Anna, as well as the rest of the audience become quickly aware that Nikolai is much more than just a driver as his character seems to evolve right before our eyes from one scene to the next, displaying repulsive monstrous violence in one scene before stunning us with quiet acts of humanity in the next. For his role, Mortensen went to Russia to immerse himself in research and spent much time in the company of others from the world of Vor V Zakone (“Thieves by the Code”) to accurately portray the morally conflicted character.

Although the perpetual gloom and dark color palette, coupled by some particularly gory bursts of violence (naked Mortensen’s brawl is sadly more well-known by online gossip than the plot of the film itself) may keep some film fans at a distance but Eastern Promises makes a brilliant and sometimes even superior counterpart to A History of Violence in the existential questioning of what humans are capable of and as Mortensen notes, Cronenberg’s investigation of whether lying, violence or illegal activity is ever justified. Sophisticated storytelling and one of the best performances of the year in Mortensen who successfully vanishes in his role helped garner the film three Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture and should also play well to not only fans of the director and stars but also films such as last year’s Oscar winning Best Picture The Departed, which incidentally shares the same composer as Promises with the pulse-pounding score by Howard Shore.