Eastern Promises (United Kingdom/Canada/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Eastern Promises is the latest effort from acclaimed filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose recent work has elevated his status from that of a cult figure to someone in the mainstrem. Although the director has re-teamed with his The History of Violence star, Viggo Mortensen, the results aren’t as satisfactory. Eastern Promises is a jumbled string of mob-related clichés that mesh into something that’s derivative and at times uninteresting. Aside from two “Cronenberg” scenes, the movie is lifeless and concludes on a note that makes the movie feel unfinished. I have been complaining about a lot of the movies at this festival being needlessly long; Eastern Promises might have been a better production had it added another 15 or 20 minutes on the back end, beefing up an anticlimactic finale.

Naomi Watts is Anna, a midwife at a London hospital. After delivering a baby for an unwed mother who dies in childbirth, Anna goes in search of the girl’s living relatives. Her quest unexpectedly brings her into contact with the Russian mob, presided over by the kingpin, a restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and his creepy son (Vincent Cassel). They pretend to be nice to her, but their goal is to obtain an incriminating diary possessed by the dead mother. To do their dirty work, they employ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), whose official role is as Semyon’s driver, but who is also referred to as “the undertaker.” Nikolai has his own secrets, not the least of which is a desire to depose Semyon and replace him upon the throne of the Russian criminal underworld in London.

Eastern Promises concentrates on two basic plots, neither of which radiates originality. The first pertains to Anna’s near-obsessive need to find a family for the motherless baby. We learn that she lost a child and so relates to the newborn on a maternal level. Then there’s the crime element of the story, which includes gamesmanship among the gangsters to see who will ultimately end up on top. The “surprise” twist (which won’t be unexpected to some viewers) introduces more problems than it solves and leads in part to the incomplete feeling that accompanies the ending.

Cronenberg delivers twice when it comes to gore and violence. The movie opens with one of these trademark scenes as a man’s throat is slit while he’s in a barber’s chair. (Encouragement to tip well.) Later, there’s a no holds-barred two-on-one between Nikolai and a couple of thugs. What makes this interesting is that Viggo Mortensen is naked for the entire battle. This is one of those rare movies when there’s plenty of male nudity as Mortensen literally lets it all hang out. (Hetero men will be glad to know that there are a few bare breasts here and there, although none belongs to Naomi Watts.) Sadly, those are the only two sequences likely to remind the viewer that he or she is watching a Cronenberg movie. The rest of what’s on offer - including everything related to Anna - is banal. Perhaps the director set the bar so high with The History of Violence (a flawed but at times brilliant motion picture) that there was no way he could equal it with Eastern Promises, but for him to fall so far short is nothing less than criminal.

Eastern Promises (United Kingdom/Canada/United States, 2007)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinead Cusack, Donald Sumpter
Screenplay: Steve Knight
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1