Review: Eastern Promises

By Matthew Huntley

September 20, 2007

The news of Heath Ledger's breakup with Michelle Williams makes her smile.

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Eastern Promises is about a midwife at a London hospital trying to rescue a newborn baby from foster care. The baby's mother was a 14-year-old Russian girl who died during childbirth and whose only form of identification is her diary.

To track down the girl's family, the midwife seeks to translate the diary, which is written in Russian. She finds a business card for a restaurant owned and run by a Russian mafia boss, who warns her, in not so many words, she's stepping into a world too dangerous for her to handle.

There's clearly enough going on in this story to make a good movie, but then why does the end result feel so empty? The director is David Cronenberg, whose filmmaking style is always uniquely provocative, especially with regards to sex and violence. He keeps that reputation going strong in Eastern Promises, but what's missing are developed characters and a story worth caring about.

For a movie with so many moral and emotional battles, the execution feels strangely drab and mediocre. Yet, at the same time, I was swayed and partially moved by the movie's patience, tone and strong performances. I guess they were enough to win me over.

Naomi Watts stars as Anna, a midwife who lives with her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski). Anna has just ended a long relationship with a doctor and we learn she miscarried a baby of her own. When the 14-year-old Russian girl dies and leaves behind an infant, Anna has a natural instinct to love and protect it.

At a restaurant where the Russian girl supposedly worked, Anna meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a calm and charming man who's calm and charming in the way only depraved people can be. He's amiable and polite at first, but when Anna mentions the diary, he turns quietly forceful and Anna realizes he's not simply asking her to bring him the diary, he's telling her to.


Working for Semyon is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a mysterious driver and confidant for Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's immature son who will forever be controlled by his father. Nikolai is slowly earning the family's trust and affection, but that might not be enough to keep him alive.

Semyon knows there's something incriminating written about him in the diary and orders Nikolai to retrieve it. Uncle Stepan, meanwhile, begins translating it and warns Anna of words like "rape." But Anna proceeds with caution. She wants to get to bottom of this thing and finds she can talk to Nikolai, who has secrets of his own.

My problem with Eastern Promises is that it didn't engage me beyond a conventional mob drama. Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Knight didn't convince there was a reason to care about what was going on, nor did I ever feel like I knew any of the characters. The story and people feel underdeveloped and seem like they could have been part of a greater, fuller epic. To be sure, the somber setting and characters are original and rarely seen in the movies, but I wish they could have
been part of something more meaningful.

The movie's best quality is the performances, especially Mortensen and Mueller-Stahl. Mortensen, who last worked with Cronenberg in A History of Violence (liked by many critics, not by me), has a peculiar rhythm and stance in this role, and even with an Eastern European accent, he's wholly convincing, not to mention fun to watch. Notice the nuances of his movements when he prepares a corpse to be thrown into the Thames; or the exciting fight between him and two Chechnyans in a steam room. Much of his performance feel improvised, yet completely natural.

Mueller-Stahl is graceful and reserved on-screen. Like many mob bosses portrayed in the movies (Paul Sorvino from Goodfellas comes to mind), he makes us believe he's a dangerous, virile man who's threatening even when he's preparing cakes in the kitchen.

Eastern Promises is not a movie I found very entertaining during my first viewing. Yet, at the same time, I didn't find it dull. It's a seemingly uneventful story told in an unconventional way and I could imagine liking and admiring it more each time I see it. But on the first go, it leaves much to be desired.

I'm glad I saw it, yes, especially for the acting and Cronenberg's deceptive style (the sound, photography and editing are all subtle and minimalistic). I sensed it could be a greater and more relevant film if it went on longer. If anything, Cronenberg and his cast demonstrate they're capable of making a better, more complete movie with characters we get to know on a deeper level. I just wish they had made it.



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