A superbly wrought yarn set in the milieu of first-generation Russian mobsters in London that is simultaneously tough-minded and compassionate about the human condition, “Eastern Promises” instantly takes its place among David Cronenberg’s very best films. Same could be said for Viggo Mortensen, whose tightly coiled star turn recalls the magnetic work of Hollywood’s greats of yore. Appreciation by the director’s fans and a wide specialized viewership is assured, but there’s enough intrigue and blood and guts here for Focus to have a shot at an ever bigger audience.
The tale, which takes place almost entirely between Christmas and New Year’s Day, starts with two deaths and a birth. The first victim gets his throat gruesomely cut in a Russian gangland job, while the second is a Russian girl who expires in childbirth. Helping oversee the latter is hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), who quietly takes home the unfortunate teenager’s diary.
The way screenwriter Steve Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) spirals and layers his story out from this simple beginning is thrilling to behold. Having just split with a boyfriend, Anna is living with her mother (Sinead Cusack) and her late Russian father’s brother, the cranky Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). Anna finds a business card in the dead girl’s diary for a local Russian restaurant, which she visits in the hopes of having the Russian-language diary translated and learning something about the girl.
The warm, old-fashion eatery is presided over by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a soft-voiced, twinkly-blue-eyed gent with courtly manners but just a tad pushy when it comes to the diary. It doesn’t take long to glean that old Semyon is the boss of the vory v zakone, the Russian mafia, which operates from the restaurant. The gang was behind the opening murder, and working directly for the boss are his volatile son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who drinks far too much, and Nikolai (Mortensen), a trim, sleekly dressed, self-contained man who’s mostly a chauffeur but can do dirty work when needed.
The dead girl’s diary turns out to reveal far too much about Semyon’s criminal activities, about how he procures susceptible teens from the old country with promises of work, only to turn them into prosties and junkies, and about Kirill’s misdeeds. It’s all nasty stuff, and Nikolai, who has very gently expressed a certain interest in Anna, is eventually asked by Semyon to “deal” with her uncle Stepan, who has read the diary and doesn’t hesitate to boast that he used to be affiliated with the KGB.
With Cronenberg spinning Knight’s web at a cunningly measured pace, the insinuations, suspicions and threats grow knottier by the minute. The more Semyon becomes impressed with Nikolai’s proficiency, the less confident he becomes in his wildman son. Russian-Chechen enmity, the breeding ground for criminals provided by old Soviet prisons, the degree to which Scotland Yard can deal with these immigrant gangs — all are touched on while keeping the human drama to the fore.
Latter stretch features some great twists and turns-of-events, all the better for their subtlety, as well as an amazing set piece, a fight-to-the-death between two knife-wielding assassins and a nude Nikolai in an old London bathhouse. It’s the one time Nikolai isn’t prepared for what’s happening, and the struggle seems so fierce, and the violence of it is so astounding in its realism, that it’s breathtaking.
Another less showy but fascinating sequence has Nikolai being interviewed by mob hierarchy to determine his worthiness for promotion in the org, an event formalized by the application of star tattoos; one reason passed on for Russian mobsters’ liking of bathhouses is that you can tell any man’s status by his tattoos.
The surprises and revelations continue right up to the eminently satisfying ending; it’s possible that Cronenberg has never made a film of such consistent tone and control. Helping enormously in this regard are the internationally diverse actors, who have been cast with brilliant imagination. Watts doesn’t have any particularly showy scenes but again displays an emotional fluency and openness that invites instantaneous empathy.
Cassel is at the top of his game, unsurprisingly good at appearing out of control but very effective at conveying Kirill’s insecurity and charged feelings for Nikolai. Mueller-Stahl might have been considered an unlikely candidate to play a Russian mob boss, but he’s mesmerizing in his quiet authority, while Polish helmer Skolimowski was an inspired choice as the disagreeable but pivotal old uncle.
Still, it’s Mortensen’s picture, progressing from his work in Cronenberg’s last film, “A History of Violence,” to this riveting portrait of an observant man of few words who always bides his time, never shows his hand and at one point enigmatically says, “I live in the zone all the time”; in context, it makes sense.
Entirely shot in Britain, pic is beautifully crafted by mostly familiar Cronenberg hands, including longtime lenser Peter Suschitzky, production designer Carol Spier, costume designer Denise Cronenberg and editor Ronald Sanders. Howard Shore’s score contributes mightily to the sense of intrigue and mystery.