Eastern Promises

2007, Movie, R, 100 mins

Review

EASTERN PROMISES
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David Cronenberg's thriller about a naive midwife who becomes entangled with London-based Russian gangsters is an icily seductive parable about family, power, unconventional justice and the perils of answered prayers.

Living with her mother (Sinead Cusack) after a difficult breakup, Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) maintains only the most tenuous connection to her late father's Russian roots — mostly the truculent presence of her hard-drinking, unapologetically bigoted Uncle Stepan (Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski) — until a brutalized Russian teenager dies while giving birth on Anna's watch. It's the height of the holiday season, and Anna, still shaken by her own miscarriage, becomes fixated on the idea of rescuing the dead girl's baby daughter from the clutches of the foster-care system, to which end she quietly pockets the girl's diary in hopes of finding relatives. When Uncle Stepan refuses to translate, Anna follows a business card tucked between the pages to the luxe TransSiberia restaurant and its avuncular owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon's velvet-coated offer of help belies the fact that he heads a brutal crime family with fingers in everything from luxury-goods smuggling to sex trafficking and murder. Innocent Anna has intruded just as a seething power struggle between Semyon's reckless son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel) — who, unbeknownst to Anna, figures prominently in the diary — and taciturn underling Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is heating up into internecine war.

Cronenberg's second collaboration with American actor Mortensen, made over with a severe, brushed-back haircut that accentuates the hard architecture of his face, is as intense as A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) but far, far colder. Cronenberg has a fine sense of how to use Mortensen's cryptic physicality, simultaneously sensual and menacing, and the film's showstopper is Nikolai's vulnerably nude, bestially desperate fight for his life against Chechen hit men who surprise him in a steam bath. Watts, though nominally the film's costar, is reduced to Nancy Drewing her way around a London as alien to her as Moscow, blithely unaware for far too long that mad-dog Kirill and smiler-with-a-knife Semyon are watching her with hungry eyes. Screenwriter Steven Knight (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, 2002) concocts a series of satisfying twists and turns — though one key plot point is telegraphed too early — and is steeped in vory v zakone (Russia's mafia) minutiae, from elaborately coded tattoos to the finer points of corpse disposal. And if the film lacks the boisterous breadth of THE GODFATHER (1976), it's also free of the notion that thugs who love their families are any better than thugs who don't. (In English and subtitled Russian) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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