Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises follows the mysterious and seemingly ruthless Nikolai (played by Viggo Mortensen), a driver for one of London's most notorious organized crime families. His stoic existence is interrupted when he crosses paths with Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who's trying to find the family of a recently born but motherless girl.

This movie is about murder, deceit, double-crossing, retribution, heavy and unrelenting violence. And, rather Hickokian in its approach to family secrets, who is who. Who is this baby girl, and who is her mother? Who is Anna, who reaches out to the baby, and insists, on great peril to her family, on finding out these secrets? And who is Nikolai, who is "just the driver," but who is pulled into the family's unnerving family business.

What I like about this movie is that it rains all the time in London, because it rains all the time in London. It's a dreary place, often, and the violence that takes place on the city streets, and within the Russian mafia, is a perfect place for it. I also like the fact that Nikolai's character is built slowly. You can see why everyone confides in him. He's steady, he's a calming influence, especially when compared to the ever-present Kirill, the son of the family patriarch, always drunk and always lashing out. And we also see little pieces of Nikolai's character in his dealings with Kirill, especially when Nikolai chooses among the sex slaves. It's a telling moment.

We see the action through either Nikolai or Anna, and the movie almost explodes when the two plotlines mesh. But the real voice behind the title is Tatiana, a Russian woman, a girl, who came to America hoping to escape the degradation and poverty of Russia, but finds herself in a parallel universe, this time surrounded by freedom and choice, but without any way for her to reach it. Tatiana is the baby's mother, and her pregnancy was her final death sentence. But as her much-sought-after diary states, she was dead long before that event.

There has been more than a little print about Viggo Mortensen's naked battle with two mafia assailants in a bathhouse. The actor must've realized he had to honestly portray Nikolai's fight in the nude in order to show how vulnerable the character is at this point in the story. It's not there for prurient interest. Although the camera displays all, it doesn't linger. The audience is leaning back as flesh meets sharpened steel, not leaning forward.

Eastern Promises almost seems a natural continuation of director Cronenberg's last film with Viggo, A History of Violence. Eastern Promises is more direct, more visceral, than the intellectual and mysterious History. Its value is nothing less. Promises delivers what it promises, a fascinating view into the life of the Russian mafia, desperation of young girls who have nothing to sell but themselves, and the fact that not everything or everyone is as they seem. Life is complicated in that world. Life is violent.

Thumb's up.


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