Film » Screens

Promises Delivers

The director of A History of Violence tackles Russian mobsters in London.

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Eastern Promises opens on a rainy December eve with a brutal gangland murder in a London barber shop. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a central London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute named Tatiana, dies in childbirth. Half-Russian herself, Anna filches the girl's diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her inebriated uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. "Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?" he asks. It's a question that will hang over the rest of the movie.

A business card found in the diary brings Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, administered by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). That this restaurant turns out to be the headquarters for the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity Vory v Zakone (Thieves in Law) is the least of the movie's surprises. In her attempt to fathom the origins of the orphan -- she's named her Christina -- Anna is continually bamboozled by the Trans-Siberians.

However naive and depressed Anna appears, she is on a serious -- and seriously deranged -- quest. She's lost a baby through miscarriage and wants another one: Tatiana's. The means by which this might be achieved are at the heart of the movie and its strangeness.

Like director David Cronenberg's last movie, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is a murderous family drama. Vincent Cassel flings himself into the role of the crime family's wastrel son Kirill, particularly in the company of the movie's most compelling presence, the crime family's chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind wraparound shades, Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in his History of Violence roles, speaking Russian as if he knows what he's saying. Nikolai is a superbly complicated character -- dark, diffident, cynical, hyper-alert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue.

Eastern Promises is a masterful mood movie with a surplus of atmosphere. Intermittently excerpted in voice-over, Tatiana's diary is the most awkward element. Everything else is fluid. Blood flows; rain is near-constant. Corpses are tossed into the Thames, but secrets keep bobbing to the surface. Late in the movie, Eastern Promises' homoerotic subtext bursts its banks and all but floods the screen in a steamy public bathhouse with an extraordinary action sequence that must have taken a week to film.

The film is an elaborate game that's played out in a fallen world filled with subterfuge. "I need to know who you are," Anna urgently begs Nikolai in the movie's haunting penultimate scene. Is our Nikolai an angel, or has Anna made a deal with the devil? As the sardonic Nikolai might say: "What does it matter?"

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