Eastern Promises reunites director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen of 2005’s A History of Violence, plus a battery of additional—and international—talent: Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski. The film is set in the exotically sinister milieu of a London émigré enclave of Eastern European crime families, rife with undercurrents of danger, treachery, and the constant threat of sudden and terrible violence.
Watts plays Anna, a midwife at an urban hospital who becomes involved in the story of one of her patients, a young pregnant girl who collapses bleeding in a neighborhood pharmacy and is rushed to Anna’s hospital in labor, hemorrhaging and near death.
The mother doesn’t make it, but her baby girl survives, with the only clue to her background a Russian-language diary found in the pocket of her dead mother’s dress. Anna takes the diary home, where she and her Russian-born mother (Cusack) give the diary to Anna’s uncle Stepan (Skolimowski) to translate, in an effort to trace the dead girl’s background and find the orphan baby’s family. Uncle Stepan learns enough from the diary to know that the Russian Mafia is involved, and he warns Anna to go no further—there are things, he suggests, that decent, honest people like Anna should not go near. No good can come of it, not for the baby and not for Anna.
Fiercely protective of the baby, and more than a little naive, Anna follows the clues in the diary. Her search leads her to the Trans-Siberian Restaurant and its avuncular owner, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl), whose friendly, twinkle-eyed warmth—as we have learned even before Anna meets him—masks a harsh and ruthless heart. He says he can’t help Anna identify the dead girl; after all, he has many customers, the girl could have picked up the restaurant’s card any number of ways. Anna says, “We’ll probably know more once we get her diary translated.” “A diary,” he says quietly. His voice is calm and his face does not seem to change, but we see his eyes narrow and go cold. Anna, foolishly, does not notice.
It’s not as if she isn’t warned. First Uncle Stepan, and now Nikolai (Mortensen), Semyon’s sleekly-dressed, reptilian chauffeur, tells her to stay away.
We know that Nikolai knows what he’s talking about. We’ve already seen him calmly removing the identifying teeth and fingertips of a murder victim before tossing the body into the Thames. We’ve seen him dealing with Kirill (Cassel), Semyon’s drunken, loose-cannon son. And before long we know something else about him that Anna doesn’t: He’s already stalking Uncle Stepan, seemingly preparing to take steps before the old man gets any more of the diary translated. There is more to Nikolai than meets anyone’s eye.
It’s best to take the plot synopsis no further. For one thing, there are developments in Steve Knight’s script that are probably intended to be surprises—though they’re not very surprising, or even convincing. Perhaps more important, Knight’s idea of establishing a Russian atmosphere is to show a birthday party at Semyon’s restaurant where a folk singer in a peasant tunic strolls around with a balalaika singing “Ochi Chornya”—the kind of movie shorthand that’s as dusty as saying “America” by showing a bunch of forty-niners sitting around a campfire playing “Oh Susannah” on the banjo.
What Knight’s script lacks in drama and atmosphere is made up for by Cronenberg and his cast, aided by Carol Spier’s evocatively seedy production design and the shadowy, hard-edged cinematography of Peter Suschitzky (both Cronenberg veterans). Eastern Promises has a number of riveting set-pieces to compensate for the dramatic stretches and shortcomings of Knight’s script. Among them is a sequence that may well be studied in film schools for decades to come: a fight in an ancient bathhouse between a nude, unarmed Nikolai and two massive knife-wielding thugs. That the thugs fail to make short work of Nikolai is a tribute not only to his own prowess, but to that of Cronenberg, editor Ronald Sanders and stunt coordinator Julian Spencer.
Short on dramatic sense but long on menace and subtle powerhouse acting—that’s Eastern Promises.