The rigor of Mr. Cronenberg’s direction sometimes seems at odds with the humanism of Mr. Knight’s script, but more often the director’s ruthless formal command rescues the story from its maudlin impulses. Mr. Knight aims earnestly for your heartstrings, but Mr. Cronenberg insists on getting under your skin. The result is a movie whose images and implications are likely to stay in your head for a long time-New York TimesEastern Promises is a film that made me cry one second, laugh another and cringe the next. The imagery, angry, driven characters and underlying theme of deception were well thought out and displayed on the screen.
I went into this film strongly thinking of A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg's 2005 film also staring Viggo Mortensen. If you have ever seen this movie, you will know what I am talking about: the explicit sex scenes, the extremely life like and bloody murder scenes, all with a Disney movie undertone.
Eastern Promises was not like this though. Granted there are many bloody scenes where I cringed and had to turn my head away because it was so life like (my favorite when Nikolai stabs another mobster in the eye with a knife. You hear EVERYTHING.)
The film begins with images of life and death. A young girl, who appears to have been badly beaten, is taken to the hospital after she begins hemorrhaging in a pharmacy. Anna, played by Naomi Watts, helps to deliver a daughter, while the girl unfortunately meets her demise.
Anna finds the young girl's diary, written entirely in Russian, in her purse. Of course no one comes to claim the young woman or her child and Anna becomes suspicious of the girl's needle tracks on her arms and bruises.
The diary of the girl, Tatiana, becomes the voice over narration throughout the rest of the film, where the audience discovers that she was a 14 year old runaway from Russian who was promised a life of luxuries and a singing career in London but was instead lured into prostitution, forced hereoin addiction and rape.
After losing a child herself, Anna is determined to translate Tatiana's diary in order to find a family to take Tatiana's newborn baby girl, whom she dubs Christine (the child is born the day before Christmas). While sifting through the journal, Anna comes across a Russian restaurants business card. She pays a visit to the establishment, where she meets Semyon, the owner and head of a Russian mob family that constantly fights with another London based Russian mob family. Seymon, being part of the prostitution ring that brought Tatiana into Great Britain in the first place, knows that Anna must be dealt with and that the information on Tatiana's life should not be known. He enlists his driver, Nikolai, played by the amazing Viggo Mortensen who could literally play any character on any script if you gave it to him. He was so amazingly convincing as a Russian mobster.
Nikolai, who bands together with Seymon's son Kirill, is trying to join into the family business and must prove his loyalty.
Throughout the film, I was torn between whether or not I was on Nikolai's side. On the surface, it seems as though Nikolai would be the enemy. He is trying to help cover up the rape of a 14 year old girl, which eventually lead to her death. I should hate him. However, he does so many things throughout the film that turns his icy exterior into an empathetic being. For instance, to prove that he is not a "queer" Kirill forces Nikolai to have sex with a prostitute in front of him. After he is finished, Nikolai speaks to the girl, then gives her a wad of money and tells her in a staunch Russian accent to stay alive a little longer. This charity becomes apparent by the end of the film when a secret is revealed (If you want to know what that secret is, by all means email me and I'll let you know).
According to the New York Times:
In A History of Violence Mr. Mortensen seamlessly impersonated an ordinary, decent small-town guy who was also a cold, professional killer. Nikolai is a similarly ambiguous — or perhaps divided — character. He is all hard, tense muscle, and yet an almost subliminal hint of compassion occasionally shines through his icy, impassive face.
The film revolves around many aspects of films such as these, including the loyalty people will have to belong to a family and the importance of having a story to tell, which is apparent in the tattoos that the Russian mobsters have that tell their life stories. Nikolai receives two stars above his heart when he is accepted in Seymon's mob family. It also revolves around the innocence of children. When Seymon is discovered to be the father of baby Christine, he orders Kirill to take care of the baby, but even Kirill, who would have no problem killing another man, cannot bear to part ways with a child into the river below. After losing a child of her own, Anna feels obligated to care for the innocent Christine
According to the Boston Phoenix:
Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is tightly wrapped and full of surprises, and Cronenberg unfolds it with the resignation efficiency and grace of Mortensen's performance.