Sometimes the least-suspected person in an organization is the one who needs to be watched the most. Such is the case in “Eastern Promises,” a new thriller reteaming director David Cronenberg with his “A History of Violence” leading man Viggo Mortensen.
One of Eastern Europe’s most notorious organized crime families exists in a seemingly drab London. To most people, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a warm, affable restaurant owner and family man. To those who really know him, however, he’s the head of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood.
While Semyon decides the nightly entree of his Trans-Siberian restaurant, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is supposed to be working to take over for his father. In truth, he’s working in the sex-trade business and brutalizing women.
Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen) is the family’s driver. Much like a driver in the Godfather films, he’s suave and presentable in his suit and tie. But behind those dark sunglasses, he hides his secret ambitions and emotionless reactions to killings.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is a midwife at a London hospital who is alarmed when a young girl dies and leaves her abandoned baby with no one to take care of her. When Anna discovers a diary written in Russian left by the girl, she turns to her Russian Uncle Stephan (Jerzy Skolimowski).
At first, Stephan refuses to look at the diary. When he finally delves in, he only warns Anna to have nothing to do with the baby. He knows whoever killed her mother will come after the baby and the diary. Anna doesn’t quite believe her uncle. One day when her motorcycle breaks down, she meets Nikolai and learns about his Russian boss. Once she tells Semyon about the girl, the baby and the diary, ultimately all of their lives change.
In addition to Cronenberg’s keen direction, screenwriter Steven Knight’s screenplay is tight and suspenseful, just as good as his work in “A History of Violence” and his first feature, “Dirty Pretty Things.” All three movies have been about people and places below the radar of everyday people.
Mortensen is exceptional in his role, probably because he went to extremes to make his character believable. He learned to speak Russian, researched the sex-trafficking trade and the gangs of Ural, had his body painted with tattoos and consented to roll around nude in a long fight scene.
“Being able to think about what I’d seen by going to where the character was from, provides something real for scenes. I believe it’s helpful to the other actors, too, if I’m convincing,” said Mortensen.
Kirill is a complex character who pays homage to his father while trying to satisfy his own desires. His undoing comes when he forms a close relationship with Nikolai. Cassel (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) handles both personalities of his character with ease.
In yet another exceptional performance, Armin Mueller-Stahl (“The West Wing”) is the icing on the cake in this movie. He’s a man who can smile at a child at her birthday party one moment and stick a knife in the caterer’s back in the kitchen the next. Mueller-Stahl not only has the face for such a character, but also the ascetic attitude.
Naomi Watts (“The Painted Veil,” “King Kong”) has become a very accomplished actress in the last few years. Her role as Anna doesn’t have much range, but she delivers a memorable performance.
Although mostly predictable,"Eastern Promises” never diminishes the intrigue and drama of the story.