David Cronenberg’s chillingly realist gangster film follows the workings of the Russian mafia in London.
Cronenberg raises the curtain of his story with the birth of child and the death of her mother. The attending midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), finds the address of a Russian restaurant in the mother’s diary where she goes to try and find the child’s next of kin. She is greeted by the initially pleasant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who cannot help her with the whereabouts of the family but could translate the diary for her – she had asked her Ukrainian uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) but he refused as he didn’t want to read a ‘stolen’ item.
As well as encountering Semyon, Naomi crosses paths with Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the latter being Semyon’s son and the former ‘just the driver’. An interest in Anna is instantly seen in Nikolai but he cannot pursue his emotions as he must first ‘tend to business’. This of course means preparing a frozen corpse for disposal: removing finger tips and teeth as well as dumping the body in the Thames.
Anna learns from the diary that the people she met are ‘vor’, members of the Russian mafia, meaning she must tread carefully when dealing with them. All the meanwhile, Nikolai is permitted to enter an elite brotherhood within the gang – the members of which are distinguished by stars tattooed on their knees to signify that bow to no one.
The film bears multiple other narrative lines and sub-plots which give it substance and meaning, driving it away from a normal gangster film. However, it still bears key gangster themes like the role and importance of family within the criminal circles but what gives it such a spine-tinglingly reality, something that maybe we don’t receive in the stylised, classy gangster movies like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Road to Perdition’, is that firstly it’s set in London, known for it’s gritty landscape which excellently complements the abject events in the film. This can be related to Guy Ritchie’s ‘Rocknrolla’, which also deals with the Russian mafia and links to the most pertinent reason of Eastern Promises’ scary reality, is that it’s contemporary. The Russian mafia is the most modern and present of all with it’s effect in politics and society being daily and evident.
The film itself draws an excellent performance from Viggo Mortensen whose role in a nude fight scene proves to be one of the best sequences of the film. Cronenberg also establishes a certain homoeroticism between Mortensen and Cassel’s characters, ironic of course, due to various antiquated Russians in the film condemning ‘queers and queer diseases’. Not to mention the perfectly established pseudo-family between Mortensen, Watts, and the baby which adds to the complexity of the movie. Essentially, the film defines the term ‘Eastern Promises’ through the killed and raped mother – the mother who was promised by a friend of a friend that ‘in London I can make more money in a week than my father can in a year.’
Grisly, gritty, and gripping, not for the squeamish but undoubtedly a good watch.