Eastern Promises has a feel to it that you would think director David Cronenberg is attempting to create his very own Godfather trilogy. Howard Shore’s original score definitely adds to the mood and the emphasis on family is what gives this movie a distinct quality and a certain genre feel. That is, on top of the gruesome violence that is so over the top you become desensitized by it almost immediately and get wrapped up in the entire world of this London based Russian mafia piece.
Eastern Promises continues Cronenberg’s trend of extreme violence (i.e. The Fly and A History of Violence) as the film opens with a man’s throat being sawed open. Blood squirts, a gargle, and death… This is one of the two deaths at the beginning of the picture, whose story is launched not only by death, but more importantly, by birth.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a hospital midwife who gives birth to a baby Russian girl, whose mother dies during the delivery. In an attempt to find the child’s family, the mother’s diary soon leads Anna to the seedy underworld of the Russian mafia, a world Anna has only heard of but must now rely on if she is to achieve her goal.
That is certainly a simplified plotline, but to give you more would only ruin it. Part of the fun of watching this film is soaking it all in as the layers are peeled away. I have not even told you of the film’s main character Nikolai played by Viggo Mortensen, or Kirill, the son of Russian crime boss Semyon played by Vincent Cassel. Mortensen and Cassel are perfectly cast, just as are Naomi Watts as Anna and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Semyon; it is part of the charm of this seedy drama.
Mortensen’s role as Nikolai, a man on the outside looking in at that Russian mafia, is perfect as he slowly becomes involved in the dirty deeds being done, and Vincent Cassel is, once again, perfect in every way. Not to be overlooked, Mueller-Stahl offers up a quiet, yet menacing performance as Semyon while Watts guides the story, but never falls into the trap of overacting as her character never becomes the damsel in distress, a factor that oftentimes plagues a project like this.
Outside the great acting and well developed storyline, Eastern Promises delivers on one end and fails on another. Perhaps Cronenberg is trying to develop his own mafia based trilogy, but where Steven Knight’s script falls short is in what it doesn’t offer. While the main plot thread is resolved, there is so much more to tell once the credits begin to role. To compare once again to The Godfather, it would be as if The Godfather had ended once Don Corleone passed the torch to Michael as opposed to showing the final 40 minutes detailing what happened afterwards. Eastern Promises has a running time of only 96 minutes and it feels like there is at the very least a 20 minute reel missing. This plays well into the idea of a sequel, but I don’t envision this being such a huge success that a sequel is greenlit anytime soon.
If you take the time to see Eastern Promises be prepared to run the gamut of emotions, and depending on how weak your stomach is, be prepared for a few scenes that may not be so easy to handle since Cronenberg never hides any of his violence, and there is plenty to be had here ranging from slit throats to full on naked bathhouse brawls (Viggo Mortensen’s flopping appendage included). Storywise there is plenty to enjoy and a lot to get wrapped up in, but it seems to end before it should have. While this may leave the audience wanting more, I think it was a mistake not to give it to them.