Eastern Promises gives us a glimpse into Russian organized crime in London and what happens when an innocent person gets wrapped up in its seedy existence. Amazing visuals and beautiful acting make Eastern Promises worth seeing.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife in the maternity ward in a London hospital. A young pregnant Russian woman who speaks no English is brought into the hospital and delivers her baby before dying. Anna makes it her personal mission to find the family of the child, no matter where it takes her. Her first and only clue to the mother’s identity is her diary, written in Russian. Anna first brings the diary to her uncle, who is so disgusted by the content, he refuses to translate the contents for her. Discouraged but not giving up, she brings the diary to a local Russian restaurant. Semyon, the owner, agrees to translate the diary for her. Anna doesn’t know that he is the head of the local Russian mob. When she leaves the restaurant she meets Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), the cleaner for the mob. When they realize what is in the diary, Anna, her uncle, her aunt, and the baby aren’t safe.
Eastern Promises is to the eyes what crÃ¨me brule is to the tongue: smooth, sophisticated, and delicious. The cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and director David Cronenberg jumped head first into a modern film noir style that grabs the audience by the eyes and doesn’t let go. There is exceptional attention to framing in most of the scenes, but it is the use of light that constantly caught my attention. There is lighting conspicuously meant to draw your attention to one particular part of the scene, and lighting that does it more subtly. The lighting conveys the right mood without the intention of the lighting being dreadfully obvious.
Cronenberg does not shy away from graphic violence. Scene after scene of realistic, lip-biting and stomach-turning violence brutality pepper the movie and stun the audience. In the first few minutes there is a disturbing scene that made all of the people in the theater lurch to the back of their seat with their hands over their eyes, almost. I, and everyone else around me, couldn’t stop watching. It is a movie about the mob and about its dangers. To shy away from the graphic representation is to glorify the mob, not encourage us to fear it.
Mortensen’s performance as Nikolai is tremendous. Mortensen finds the fine line to walk between the two sides of the enigmatic man, whose motives and influences are never clear to the audience and maybe even him. His character is both soft and fierce. He has sexuality that oozes in ambiguous directions. This monstrous man has a redemptive tenderness. Mortensen’s performance may be lost on the squeamish, but those who can stomach the violence will be rewarded with an exceptional performance.
Cronenberg’s graphic vision of a complex story is an exceptional cinematic accomplishment. This movie will leave you perplexed, with your stomach turned over, and an having endless numbers of things to talk over with the people who sat next to you in the theater.