PLOT: When a midwife seeks to find family for a baby whose mother died during childbirth, she discovers a diary written in Russian. Hoping to find the names of her family so the child doesnít end up in foster care, even though her Uncle insists it is a mistake. She attempts to search for someone to translate by following up on a business card that she found in the diary for a local restaurant and thus arrives there for answers. Once there, she finds a kindly old man, who may be more than what he seems. As the man and his son seem to have connections to the Russian Mafia, she finds herself getting close to a very dangerous family.
The opening sequences in
EASTERN PROMISES is a disturbing moment where a man gets his throat slashed. It is a jolt that introduces us to the subtle and unique film which you are about to watch. David Cronenberg is becoming a bit of a master when it comes to thrillers like this. At once, violent and shocking while the next it offers up a sensitive and very humanistic approach. Much like last yearís collaboration with Viggo Mortensen, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, Promises takes on a vicious story that is not always what it seems. It is powerful, unique and sometimes quite devastating film as a woman attempting to protect a child is thrust helplessly into a world run by the Russian mafia.
Early on, when Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife helps to save a child whose mother dies on the operating table. She finds herself drawn to the baby. In an attempt to find family for the little girl, she finds a diary written in Russian. When she finds a business card for the Trans-Siberian restaurant she makes her way there to find out if anyone knows the girl. Instead, she finds a kindly old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who promises to translate the diary for her. Yet Semyon may have other reasons to take the diary, as he and his family are part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Along with his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) who is wild and uncontrollable, and their driver Nikolai Luzhis (Viggo Mortensen), they are a powerful force in the Russian Mafia.
This is not your typical mobster story. Yes there are moments of violence, including what may be the most intense fight scene in recent years. You may have heard about ďthe bathhouseĒ scene, where Viggo must fight for his life while completely naked. The audience I saw the film with laughed throughout the scene because it leaves little to the imagination. But much of that reaction seemed to be a nervous laughter at the sheer intensity of it all. It is one of the best on-screen fights I have witnessed because it is brutal, shocking and I really havenít seen anything like it. Trust me, with the laughter, there was sheer excitement amongst the theatre goers that you could feel.
Much can be said about the trail that leads this film to itís final destination, but I think it would be best for you to see the film without too much knowledge beforehand. It has a terrific quality that many films of this ilk donít have, and that is the art of surprise. In the beginning there are things that you know. Certain characters that are obviously bad guys, but it is still an unexpected trip into London where these men make their living off the blood of others. Yet this didnít feel like any gangster movie that I have seen. Cronenberg offers up a compelling journey by uncovering the goings on and giving us just enough information to follow along.
But is this a perfect film? Well, there are a couple of minor points that could have been changed. The ending is a bit sudden and may not work for some, but it really didnít bother me. I also would have liked to have seen Vincent Casselís character explored a bit more. There was much alluded to him, yet I didnít feel like his story was answered as much as I would of liked. The man is a great actor and he is quite fantastic here. Both Viggo and him have such a wonderful connection to each other and the script left much of the relationship unsaid. But to see these two champs work together, I didnít mind a few unanswered questions. Maybe there is really no need to know any more than what they offer.
As for the rest of the cast, Mr. Cronenberg continues to show his talent with picking the right cast. Naomi Watts seems to be heading in Jessica Lange or Meryl Streep territory. Yes she is beautiful, but she has a very real and vulnerable side here. I loved her relationship with the baby and I found her expressing strong emotion without saying a word. This is a flesh and blood character that has suffered and continues to suffer only hoping that she will find what she needs in life. I also was impressed by Armin Mueller-Stahl who conveys a sense of warmth, yet sets the tone just right for when he warrants mistrust. In fact, all the actors do fine work here and it makes the experience much more satisfying.
And I have already mentioned Mr. Mortensen but he deserves a few more words. His work with David is really tremendous. This guy has been giving honest character work since his amazing performance in THE INDIAN RUNNER with Sean Penn directing. It is nice to see a legendary director continue to give him roles to show how fearless an actor he is. He is a rare movie star who is a shockingly good actor. And his work with the dialect is also very good.
With EASTERN PROMISES, David Cronenberg continues to take his career down a very fascinating path. He offers up a few moments that would fit in any of his other films, the nude fight scene will surely be at the top of his most brilliant moments in film. But he also offers a mobster movie that doesnít feel like everything else out there. It is a deliberately paced look at a part of London we rarely see. And it is supported by a strong script by Steven Knight who also gave us the wonderful DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. I promise that you even if you find faults in the ending or maybe other moments that donít work for you, you will be able to find much to admire in this bleak look into a dangerous world.
My rating: 8/10 -- JimmyO