Eastern Promises traffics in the clichés of movies about the mob; but because its fatalism is so specific, and so specifically Russian, the material is revivified. The film has something of the tragic heft of Coppola’s Godfather films; but because it was directed by David Cronenberg, it’s fundamentally modernist. Cronenberg, one of the most original of directors, with many a virtuoso performance behind him, turned the corner to absolute mastery with his last film, A History of Violence . These two recent films, both starring Viggo Mortensen at the apex of his powers, seem effortless, perhaps able to attain more by staying well within genre boundaries. Eastern Promises is more elusive than A History of Violence , but the juice is there, just below surfaces that gleam like a black boot polished to a mirror shine.
The film begins with an act of violence, and later contains a violent scene too much discussed in the media. The less said about all of this the better – violence is used sparingly in the film, but to great and grisly effect because the blocking is unusually well thought out, the makeup is excellent, and the details are almost clinical. Brace yourself.
The blood of the crime-world connects it to the scene that follows. Anna Khitrova, a pretty, blonde nurse-midwife, attends the surviving baby of a fourteen-year-old mother who has died of placental abruption. Anna is greatly moved. Later, at the home of her mother and uncle (both Russian), where Anna has been staying lately, we learn why she was so affected by the dead girl and her baby. The uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski), a glass of Slivovitz in hand, tells her, "I’m glad your boyfriend left you. It’s not right to mix races with a black man. That’s why the baby died inside you." Anna is outraged; she’d like to shed the Russian heritage that claws at her with decrepit hands.
Still, Anna asks her uncle to translate the dead girl’s diary, which she has purloined. It’s slow going, but it becomes clear that the girl was involved with the Russian mob; and stuck inside is a business card for a Russian restaurant called the Trans-Siberian.
Anna negotiates the looming London traffic on her miniature motorcycle. Upon arrival at the restaurant, she is given the meaty eye by a driver, Nikolai (Mortensen), standing in waiting by his car. There is something comical about his tacky, slick hair, but he is threatening, too — as if he is standing guard, as if the muscles under his loose-fitting, elegant suit could leap into animalistic action. Though his eyes are hidden behind black shades, she shrinks from the aggressiveness of his stare.
Anna meets the restaurant’s proprietor, Semyon, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. He is paternalistic, frustratingly condescending, denying any knowledge of the dead girl. The meeting is over, his back is to her, he’s cooking in the kitchen. And then Anna, suddenly emboldened by a righteous anger, mentions the diary. Semyon turns around slowly, wipes his hands. "A diary?" A new, menacing light flickers in his eyes.
As Anna leaves, we see her from Nikolai’s point of view – her pert bottom in tight jeans, her body constricted by leather boots and a motorcycle jacket. And with that, we have shifted perspectives. As Anna rides off, we remain in another, older world – the world of a driver who tries to stay out of trouble, but who may have secret motives; a world at once familiar and strange, thrillingly dangerous, and erotic.
I fear that it will be easy to see Eastern Promises and feel let down. A straight read will find it to be almost maddeningly modest. But I invite you to sense what the expressive eye of the camera is really showing you: the buried themes, the complex motives, the sexuality. This is a film as black, rich, and rare as caviar.