Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises, the latest film from director David Cronenberg, uses the Russian underworld as a starting point for exploring family and loyalty, involvement and indifference, and ultimately life and death.

The film opens with two significant events: a killing at a Russian barber's in London and a 14-year-old Ukranian girl, Tatiana, giving birth then dying. Midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), a little fragile after losing her own baby, is determined to find the newborn's relatives. Tatiana has a diary written in Russian, so she enlists her Russian Uncle Stepan (a sometimes comic, sometimes racist character played by Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate the diary, which leads to the Russian mob.

The head of the mob is Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man who appears familial and a follower of tradition in public, but lethal and unforgiving in private. (His attempts to appear casual while finding out where Anna lives and works are unnerving.) Seymon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is a borderline psychotic drunk on power he inherited rather than earned. Kirill is watched over by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a largely silent chauffeur who cleans up Kirill's messes and quietly suffers the abuse and lack of respect from those above him.

Nikolai finds himself helping Anna, while urging her to let it go and warning her of the danger. As Anna learns more about Tatiana's incredibly rough life, she finds her situation becoming more perilous for herself, her family, and the baby she tries to help. Meanwhile Seymon has more and more difficulty because of Kirill, while Nikolai is torn between protecting Kirill, helping Anna, and obeying Seymon.

Eastern Promises is a bleak look at a world where public respectability masks private horrors. Cronenberg directs his cast with a steady hand, leading his actors to combine their desperation and their convictions. This is a very unglamorous look at crime and a hard look at ethnic culture in a foreign land -- Seymon's success is in stark contrast to Tatiana's horrors -- and Eastern Promises is finally a powerful, thoughtful film.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

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