Eastern Promises: A Review

Until this afternoon, the last film I’d seen starring Viggo Mortensen was Return of the King. In fact, I’d only ever seen Mr. Mortensen as Aragorn. Now, I will also remember him as Nikolai.

Eastern Promises didn’t strike me as my type of film when it came out. But I’d read enough positive reviews to be intrigued. The Oscar nod to Viggo for Best Actor was the final straw, so I bit the bullet and picked it up at Blockbuster.

Films in this genre normally seem a bit over my head, if I’m being honest, but I was impressed by the clarity of the story. Credit goes to both writer Steven Knight and director David Cronenberg for accomplishing that feat. After all, weaving a story about the inner workings of the Russian mob in London in a way that the average moviegoer can understand is quite an undertaking, and the team succeeded with flying colors.

The story centers a Russian mob family involved in various nefarious deeds, the most central to the story being the rape of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who subsequently gives birth to a daughter. A British midwife (Naomi Watts) of Russian descent is present to deliver the baby, but when the mother dies, she embarks on a quest to find the mother’s family. The mother’s diary leads her to the Russian mob family, and Nikolai, who is basically like a servant to the mob boss’ son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), is tasked with taking care of the problem.

Ms. Watts is believable in her role, but the character doesn’t require much of a stretch for her. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the Russian mob boss, is both convincingly quaint and ruthless. In a role where it would have been easy to channel Brando’s Godfather or other variations on that theme, Mr. Mueller-Stahl instead puts his own spin on what it means to be the head of a family crime organization. Whether due to the script, direction or acting, the character of Kirill seemed a little uneven to me. The subtext of the character’s psyche wasn’t evident until much later in the film than would have been preferable, but by the last third of the film, things are a bit clearer.

The real stand-out here is obviously Mr. Mortensen, hence the Oscar nod. At no point did I feel like I was looking at Aragorn or even at Viggo. He flawlessly channeled the Russian stoicism you would expect from a hired thug, and yet, even from his first scene, it was obvious there was more going on for this character than met the eye.

And, for those of you who are curious about the steam room scene: Yes, you get to see Mr. Mortensen naked (yes, completely, though not on showcase, if you get my drift), and No, there is nothing remotely erotic about the scene. It is violent, raw and cringe-inducing.

All in all, this is a very good effort from all parties involved, and it succeeds on most levels. It’s a good way to venture into the organized crime film genre for those not normally interested in such movies. And as an added bonus for LOTR geeks: if you watch the extra feature about the tattoos, you can spot Mr. Mortensen’s Elvish “Nine” tattoo on his left shoulder. 😉

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