Naomi Watts, Sinead Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl
R (for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity)
After the blood bath of A History of Violence, David Cronenberg tones everything down for his look into the life of a Russian Mafia family as they struggle with internal indiscretions in Eastern Promises.
The film revolves around the girlfriend of a slain enemy to the Russian Mafia whose unborn child is delivered shortly before her own death. In her possession is a diary, written in Cyrillic, mystifying the nurse who helped deliver the child. Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to piece together the girl’s history, hoping to find her family so she can make sure the baby finds a home.
She’s led to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who operates a traditional Russian catering service to hopefully get a translation of the diary after her father Stephan (Jerzy Skolimowski) refuses to translate it for her. Semyon hired the kill on the woman and uses his translation as an attempt to get Anna to bring him the diary, which would incriminate him and his family.
In his employ is a former orphan who turned to a life of crime. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is exceptionally good at disposing of bodies and does so hoping to earn a position within Semyon’s family. He must also deal with antics of Semyon’s drunkard son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Cronenberg’s depth of discovery is magnificent. He digs deep into the world of the Russian Mafia, exploring and examining every facet to create a deftly detailed world.
The male side of the acting equation is stacked with generous performances, including the heavily researched, thickly-accented Mortensen who proves that he’s only getting better with each successive film. Mueller-Stahl delivers his best performance in years. He balances fatherly concern with vindictive charm. Cassel provides adequate support as his son and rounds out the triumvirate of terrific performances.
Watts is the weakest of the ensemble, but delivers a performance characteristic of much of her other work. Her character here is strong willed to a fault which plays nicely into the rather detailed plot, revealing too much of which will ruin the experience.
Eastern Promises is one of Cronenberg’s most reserved films, avoiding the pitfalls of excessive violence and mutilation that have become his trademark. Here he limits the intense imagery in favor of bringing out the depth of his characters and the sagacity of his story. The film gives the crime genre a bit of darkness, but a significant amount of intelligence.
Though the violence is toned down, there are enough bloody moments to engross even the most hardcore of Cronenberg fans while drawing in a new audience who will appreciate his depth of focus and immersion in details.
February 1, 2008