A review of “Eastern Promises” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for violence, profanity, nudity and sex

Run Time: 1 hour, 36 minutes



          Viggo Mortensen chews it up and spits it out as the corrupt centerpiece of maverick director David Cronenberg’s searing mob thriller.

          The narrative begins with a simple tragedy: a dazed and pregnant 14-year-old girl collapses and dies in childbirth at a London hospital with only a Russian-language diary left as a clue to her identity.

          Hospital midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) is troubled by the girl’s mysterious death and determines to locate the baby’s relatives. Her amateur investigations lead her to an elegant eatery in London’s Russian ghetto, where she befriends suave charmer Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who graciously agrees to translate the diary, an offer slyly suggesting that Anna has landed smack in the middle of a vory-v-zakone (Russian mafia) hornet’s nest.

          Through kingpin Semyon Anna is uneasily acquainted with the man’s volatile, alcoholic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Kirill’s driver cum bodyguard Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen) who is worming his way into and up through the ranks of the family “business”.

          Murder, drugs, child prostitution, torture – it’s all part and parcel of an uncompromising crime drama that’s as tightly wound as a ticking bomb. Shades of cold war dread pervade the action but thanks to Cronenberg’s artsy idiosyncrasies “Promises” is also a brooding meditation on good vs. evil and the duality within, craftily embodied in Mortensen’s composed, complex observer.

          Cronenberg takes his sweet time developing the obligatory gravitas; his well-paced plot peppered with grim vignettes that include a stunningly vicious city bathhouse attack as notable for its graphic gore as for Mortensen’s chiseled nudity, complete with forty-three Russian Mob tattoos. Be still my heart!

          Watts’ ruffled feathers get lost in the mob’s raw underbelly but she manages to hold her own as the winsome witness. Cassel is a marvelous mix of lunacy and insecurity and Mueller-Stahl the master of chilling authority. But this is Mortensen’s show, a star-turn of immense proportion and promise.