Knowing David Cronenberg’s fascination with telling stories through the transformation of his subject’s bodies, it’s not hard to imagine that what originally drew the famed director to Eastern Promises is the notion of Russian convicts labelling themselves with tattoos to signify rank and advancement within the Russian mob. And yet, whether because this is Cronenberg’s later career or because the script simply didn’t call for it, much of the brutality that made the director famous is absent from this installment in his filmography. This isn’t by any means a bad thing, but it subverts expectations somewhat, and without Cronenberg’s signature flair, you have what amounts to a fairly good, yet unremarkable film.
Anna (Naomi Watts) works as a midwife at a London hospital, when one night a fourteen-year-old girl is brought in, gives birth to a premature child, and dies. Her only belongings include a purse with a journal inside, written in Russian, and a card for a Russian establishment run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna asks both her Russian uncle and Semyon to translate the journal to see what it contains. Meanwhile, it turns out the Semyon is the head of the local Russian mafia, and the journal contains secrets that he would rather remain buried. Enter Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a low-ranking chauffer to Semyon’s idiot son. Semyon begins eyeing Nikolai for advancement within the mafia, and a parallel story develops as Anna tries to find a family for the newborn child and Nikolai battles his conscience to move up the ranks.
The plotting itself is very well written, with a plot twist in the final scenes of the film that genuinely caught me off-guard, though in retrospect I probably should have guessed it. It is a solidly directed mafia film, full of intrigue and solid performances to tie everything together. Viggo Mortensen in particular provides subtle nuances to Nikolai’s soft-spoken character that are much appreciated.
However, despite its good qualities, I can’t help but feel that its lack of any sort of individual identity holds it back. Cronenberg’s penchant for blood only shines through in one major scene, and though that particular fight is satisfying to watch, it only emphasized how empty the rest of the film felt by comparison. The film is primarily composed of one-on-one conversations that communicate vital plot information, while the actors only portray their characters through the exposition, rather than having room to breathe and develop naturally. Some key scenes take place off camera, which was done intentionally to set up the ending twist, but the plotting can sometimes feel like a formality to get to that twist, which isn’t so ground-shaking as to justify the experience.
I don’t dislike Eastern Promises, but it’s hard to point out much about it that is especially likeable. All the film’s components are assembled adequately (though the distinct lack of a background score did not particularly help some scenes) and that is precisely the problem; by merely being an adequate film, it feels safe and devoid of the kinds of risks that could have propelled it to greatness and memorability. But as it stands, this is just another addition to the malaise of pretty good gangster films that I’ve seen before.
So, whatever happened to Viggo Mortensen? He hasn’t been as prominent an actor lately. Would you care to see him make a career comeback? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.