Now this is more like it after watching the woeful 10 Items or Less over the weekend. Eastern Promises is a lean, mean, tense, taut, bleak, brooding film with nothing but terrific performances from the cast to cinematographer (lots of hazy, grey tones) set in the Russian crime world via London. Eastern Promises is another wonderful film from Cronenberg that sees him firmly entrenched as one of the best directors making movies at the moment.
A 14-year-old girl shows up in a pharmacy, bleeding all over her legs, dress and the concrete floor. She’s giving birth and has dark secrets of miserable Ukrainian woe written in Russian in a diary a midwife takes from her bag that night in the hospital. Naomi Watts plays Anna, the midwife who has Russian blood in her veins. Anna is drawn to this world to figure out A/ What does the diary say? and B/ Who wants the baby to this departed teenage girl?
Anna meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a tattooed driver who seems so in control of all that is around him that every move he makes is calculated by the extreme life hinted at by his persona. Nikolai develops a soft spot for Anna. It may be the way she looks in a pair of tight jeans as she rides a vintage motorcycle (she looks damn good) or maybe he’s warmed by the events that have led her to this spot in London. She’s obviously in over her head and Nikolai is either someone looking out for her or someone who will cause her and her family grave harm.
One thing that I’m always just blown away with when I’m watching a recent Cronenberg film is the patience and the control he has in storytelling, pacing and performance. From the very first second Eastern Promises begins, we see a director in complete control of what he is filming. Love him or hate him—Cronenberg is a stylish and interesting director who delivers powerful films that are about as well crafted a movie you will see.
Eastern Promises is so full of tension and atmosphere you can cut the apprehension with a knife—literally! A word of warning to the faint of heart, like many Cronenberg films, he is not afraid of delivering some serious doses of violence. This is both a subtle film of nuance and a film with blasts of complete brutality and that’s one thing that makes it so interesting. Anything can happen at any moment. Mortensen is involved in one of the more savage and memorable fight scenes I’ve seen in years. I don’t want to spoil it but it involves knives and nudity. My respect for him grows with each smart and challenging role he takes on.
The rest of the cast is perfect as well from Watts as the midwife, Sinead Cusack as her mom, Jerzy Skolimowski as her droll, opinionated uncle and Vincent Cassel/Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Russian bad guys. I particularly enjoyed the small role of character actor Mina E. Mina with his shaved head, trimmed mustache and stone faced demeanor. I love it when a small role like his, with only a few lines of dialogue is used in such a way that it makes it just as memorable to me as a major character.
I can’t think of one thing about Eastern Promises that I would change. Nothing. In some ways, this film is connected with his 2005 film A History of Violence. Both have many similar themes, a closely related style and Mortensen as a lead character. I’m hoping his next film will make it a trilogy because if it is as good as those two we will be in for a treat in a couple of years. Eastern Promises is highly recommended.