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"Eastern Promises" cuts deep

Source: The Denver Post
Categories: Reviews

By Lisa Kennedy Denver Post Film Critic

A man meets his end, yammering, then not. A teenage mother dies in an ER delivery room. A child is born.

Death and birth ignite the slow burn of David Cronenberg's darkly thrilling crime drama "Eastern Promises."

Two years ago, when the Canadian director cast Viggo Mortensen in "A History of Violence," he provided a setting for the fine-cut artistry of an actor of deep, even mysterious, gifts.

Mortensen played a family man whose old alliances came to stir his lethal demons.

In the deceptively titled "Eastern Promises," the director and his star continue investigating the roots of violence.

This time out Mortensen's character has no people of his own to protect. Ukrainian

Nikolai Luzhin's back story is inscribed in the tattoos he earned in the former and not-so-former Soviet Union's prisons.

A driver for Kirill, the son of Russian crime boss Semyon, Nikolai doesn't look to be running from past brutality. Quiet, observant, he burrows deeper into Semyon's branch of the Vory V Zakone organization, based in London's polyglot environs.

Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova, the daughter of a British mom and Russian father.

If Nikolai stands on one side of the border between lawlessness and order, Anna, a midwife, represents the folk populating the other side.

The two cross paths when Anna takes the journal of the dead teenager to Semyon's restaurant for translation, hoping to find the infant's family.

Cronenberg and his onscreen, on-set collaborators aren't foolish enough to pretend that those residing on this side of the divide have no blemishes.

"Black men always run away," quips Anna's Russian uncle Stepan about Anna's former boyfriend. Jerzy Skolomowski makes Stepan bigoted, clueless, savvy and believable.

When he complains to Anna about her past relationships, Anna replies, "You make me sound like a burning building." Written by Steve Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") with finesse for the big themes and truthful details, "Eastern Promises" is rife with tart lines.

Strong impression

Sinéad Cusack gives her role as Anna's mother just as credible a spin. Neither Stepan nor Helen is onscreen overly long, yet our investment in them comes fast and stays.

Stepan initially refuses to decode the teen's writings. "Bury her secrets with her bodies," he advises.

The plural may have been the mistake of a non-native English speaker. But he did not misspeak. Tatiana was seduced into emigrating, then enslaved in the underground sex trade.

The voice-over reading of her hopeful then desperate entries adds so much heartbreak to a true horror film.

As is her wont, Watts is agile, moving between naiveté and epiphany. Anna may be over her head, but Watts' performance never makes her stupid.

Whiffs of Anna and Nikolai's chemistry are overpowered by the pungency of Kirill and Nikolai's relationship.

Vincent Cassel captures the fluctuating moods of an entitled son who cannot please his father. He baits and courts Nikolai, treating him as friend, fixer, brother, father and more.

Before Nikolai begins his work of identity eradication on a foe, Kirill spits at the corpse. "Pederast," he says. Later, he takes Nikolai to his father's favorite brothel. "Prove you are no queer," he says, going from amiable to imperious. Doth the scion protest too much?

Semyon is everything his son is not. Elegant, disciplined, commanding. And the way Armin Mueller-Stahl plays him serves as a reminder that art and charm do not always live at a remove from violence.

Of course, "Eastern Promises" makes that case superbly. There is no gun splatter or brain mist in this film. Knives are the weapon of choice. And to his credit, Cronenberg always dismays us with viscera.

One of the most gorgeous shots in the film - and of the year - comes when Nikolai gains a star tattoo, the mark of a made man.

Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's framing of Mortensen's body, reclining in a booth in Semyon's restaurant as a man goes to work on his knee, create a classical painting in the midst of a motion picture.

Cronenberg matches the quiet force of the above scene.

Semyon gives a job that takes Nikolai to a steam room. What transpires in this male space is naked, raw and desperately existential.

Cronenberg has made a work that constantly teases us into hoping for the best even as we dread the worst. And "Eastern Promises" is as honorable an entertainment as it is a humbling work of art.


"Eastern Promises" | **** RATING

Four Stars


Striding higher

"The Lord of the Rings" franchise made Viggo Mortensen a high-profile star, but "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" are making him a respected actor. Here's a look at his top five films (first figure is total domestic gross, second is opening weekend, in millions):

1. LOTR: The Return of the King $377 ($72.6, 2003)

2. LOTR: The Two Towers $341.8 ($62, 2002)

3. LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring $314.8 ($47.2, 2001)

4. A Perfect Murder $67.6 ($16.6, 1998)

5. Hidalgo $67.3 ($18.8, 2004)

© 2007 The Denver Post . Images © Jim Carr The Denver Post; Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen photos from Focus Features.

More Accolades - aka: Keep 'em Comin'!

Found By: Bren
Categories: Reviews
© Focus Features.
Thanks to Bren for this very nice piece from

Mortensen makes Promises


As Cronenberg crawls deeper into the psychology of violence, his cool leading man soars

September 20, 2007
Toronto Star

Viggo Mortensen turns 50 next year, and he's one of those movie actors whom you want to see age. There's a menace that lurks beneath Mortensen's cool, taut exterior and it never comes as any surprise when it spills over and scalds anyone unfortunate enough to jar that smoothly lined lid open.

This is the quality of an old-school action star, the ability to hint at lifetimes of unspoken and unseen experience that kept drawing directors like John Ford back to actors like John Wayne, Anthony Mann back to James Stewart, Sergio Leone back to Clint Eastwood, and -- twice now -- David Cronenberg back to Mortensen. And it's a quality that only gets more menacingly potent with time.

Although Cronenberg has demonstrated a persistent knack for drawing untapped resources from unconventional actors -- James Woods in Videodrome, Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers and Peter Weller in Naked Lunch -- he has, with the exception of Irons, seemed to have tapped these performers' deeper wells of inspiration after a single drop in the bucket.

Not so with Mortensen, whose turn as the killer-next-door in Cronenberg's A History of Violence can now be seen as prologue for the actor's appearance as an impenetrably motivated Russian mob chauffeur in the menacingly brilliant crime drama Eastern Promises.

In the same way that A History of Violence stretched the skin of genre over a meditation on the mutually implicating relationship between producers and consumers of mass-market brutality, Eastern Promises is a movie of dangerously deceptive surfaces.

On one level it's a story of the lurid revelations exposed when the London-based Russian crime family headed by the outwardly genteel restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) finds itself investigated by a hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) looking for clues into a pregnant teenager's death.

On others, Eastern Promises is another Cronenbergian investigation of the hard-wired nature of human monstrosity.

In the gangster movie, violence is merely the price of doing business. In Eastern Promises, violence is the very business of business.

Since surprise is one of the movie's most effectively deployed tactics, it seems almost cruel to reveal too much about either the plot or the startling diversions encountered along the way.

Suffice it to say there's much more to be said: about the film's unsettling use of its London locales, about Cronenberg's increasingly minimal technique, about the film's combustible and displaced currents of sex, violence and power, and about a filmmaker's willingness to take risks with his audience.

In the meantime, keep your eyes on Mortensen. You could make an entire movie about the way that guy just stands in a room and quietly scans the atmosphere for even the slightest molecular disturbance.

Come to think of it, Eastern Promises may be that movie.

© 2007 Metroland Media Group Ltd.. Images © Focus Features.

The Brutal Charms of Eastern Promises

Source: TNR Online.
Found By: Palmalyn
Categories: Reviews
© Focus Features.
Our thank to Palmalyn for bringing us this review from The New Republic.


Russian Roulette

by Christopher Orr

"I am driver," explains Viggo Mortensen early in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. "I go left. I go right. I go straight ahead. That's it." In fact, moviegoers should be pleased to know that the moral maneuvers undertaken by Mortensen's character, a low-level hood in London's Russian underworld, are considerably more interesting than advertised: swerves, veers, dips, even a u-turn or two. In structural terms, the protagonist of the film is a midwife played by Naomi Watts. But on a gut level this is Mortensen's movie, and he makes the most of it.

The film begins elementally enough with one birth and two deaths: A teenage prostitute gives birth to a daughter, but bleeds to death during delivery; a Russian mobster, meanwhile, has his throat brutally slit--"sawed" would be a more accurate term--as he sits in a barber chair. The events prove to be connected when Anna (Watts), the midwife overseeing the tragic birth, finds among the mother's possessions a diary in Russian and a business card for the "Trans-Siberian Restaurant."

Visiting the restaurant in hope of finding someone who might have known the girl, she meets the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a pleasant, fatherly chap who is also, as it happens, the murderous overlord of the local Russian Mafia. He takes an interest in the diary and offers to translate it. When he does so, he finds more than a few unfortunate, perhaps actionable, revelations in it concerning himself and his weak-but-vicious son Kirill (Vincent Cassell). By now, however, Anna's Russian uncle has also read the diary and told her of its ugly contents--and Semyon is aware that she's aware of them.

It's remarkable how extraneous Mortensen's character, Nikolai, is to the early proceedings, because from the beginning he looms over the film. A glorified errand boy and paid friend and chaperone for the childish Kirill, he is omnipresent, quietly smoothing over rough patches and cleaning up messes. He is there, for instance, to give Anna a lift when her motorcycle breaks down in the rain. And he is also there to help dispose of the man killed in the barbershop, a murder Kirill had rashly ordered. Handling the frozen corpse as neatly as his nickname ("the undertaker") would imply, Nikolai carefully snips off fingers (a sight Cronenberg is kind enough to share with us) and smashes in teeth (a spectacle we are spared) to make sure it will not be identified.

Having proven his value and discretion time and again, Nikolai gradually moves toward the center of the plot, as designated go-between for Semyon and Anna in their negotiations over the diary, and as custodian of Kirill's frequent excesses. Ultimately, Semyon initiates him into the vori v zakone ("thieves in law"), the Russian equivalent of becoming a "made" man, a process that requires the addition of stars on chest and knees to Nikolai's already extensive tattooing. But neither the initiation nor Nikolai himself are quite what they appear to be.

I would describe Mortensen as a revelation in the role, had he not already demonstrated what he was capable of in his previous collaboration with Cronenberg, A History of Violence. As he did then, Mortensen shows himself more comfortable with darkness and ambivalence than he ever was with the gaudy heroism required of a king in Middle Earth. His Nikolai is an enigma, an evidently decent man surrounded by, and comfortable amidst, heinous evil, one whose motives, at least initially, are unclear. It does not hurt that, alone among the multinational leads, he manages a persuasive Russian accent--nor that, with his extraordinary looks (those cheekbones could have been cut by a jeweler) and athlete's physique, he all but demands the camera's attention.

I would be remiss if I did not note that the aforementioned physique is put to atypically vivid use in what is certain to be the most talked-about scene in the film. For all his equivocating, Nikolai--like A History of Violence's Tom Stall--is physically decisive when circumstances demand. Unlike Stall, though, circumstances happen to demand when Nikolai is taking a steam in a Turkish bath, wearing only a towel and, soon, not even that. Nikolai's stitchless struggle with two knife-wielding assassins is notable not merely for the opportunity it gives for a full cataloguing of his tattoos, but for its sheer brutality. It is an encounter that concludes neither quickly nor easily, and Mortensen's nakedness amplifies his vulnerability even more than one might expect. Do not be surprised if the coming weeks see a brief, but substantial, spike in the number of Americans who choose to shower with their clothes on.

Alas, the movie itself doesn't quite match Mortensen's performance. Eastern Promises is a taut, compelling thriller, crisply directed and intelligently performed. But it doesn't manage to transcend genre, to find a deeper resonance that could linger in the imagination. In part this is a function of the film's unusual character structure: Watts delivers a typically strong performance as Anna, but her role is not developed enough for us to entrust her fully with our sympathies; Mortensen's Nikolai, meanwhile, is too superhuman to need them.

But more problematic, I think, is a certain lack of underlying tension. In A History of Violence, Cronenberg expertly conjured a veneer of sun-dappled, small-town Americana before peeling it away to expose the darkness beneath. The explosions of violence in that film were shocking in part because they seemed to have no place in such happy environs. In Eastern Promises, by contrast, London is presented from the start as dankly corrupt. Semyon blames the city for Kirill's weakness, calling it a "city of whores and queers"; Nikolai warns Anna that there are "lots of villains around." The first hint of sunshine I can recall comes in the next-to-last shot of the film.

It's no wonder that evil lurks in such grim precincts. And so--with the exception of the Turkish bath scene--Cronenberg's trademark stabs of ultragraphic violence feel rather like the gilding of an already wilted lily. Eastern Promises is a fine film, arguably Hollywood's best offering of the fall so far. But I still find myself hoping for something that will cut a little closer to the bone.

© 2007, The New Republic . Images © Focus Features.

What the critics are saying about Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

Source: B|W|R Public Relations.
Categories: Reviews
© Focus Features.
Here is an astounding collection of kudos for Viggo's performance in Eastern Promises.

Richly Deserved!

Nikolai is played, with flawless control, by Viggo Mortensen.


Eastern Promises instantly takes its place among David Cronenbergs very best films. Same could be said for Viggo Mortensen, whose tightly coiled star turn recalls the magnetic work of Hollywoods greats of yore.

- Todd McCarthy, VARIETY

Its Mortensens picture, progressing from his work in Cronenbergss last film, A History of Violence, to this riveting portrait of an observant man of few words.

- Todd McCarthy, VARIETY

His performance is flat-out brilliant.

- Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

The best (and showiest) performances are by Mortensen.

- Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Mortensen uses the accent, the posture, the eerie stillness to devastating effect There is immense skill in his performance. Its a Mortensen tour de force.

- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE

Viggo Mortensen, who starred in A History of Violence, appears here in a very different role, and it may be that the director has found his muse. Mortensen delivers just the ratio of machine to mortal that Cronenberg requires the Dietrich to his von Sternberg, you might say. This is a tribute to Mortensen, whose performance is so cool and unhurried as to verge on zombification.

- Anthony Lane, THE NEW YORKER

Mortensen digs so deeply into the role you may not recognize him at first. At a time when movie fight scenes are as routine as the dances in musicals, Nikolai engages in a fight in this film that sets the same kind of standard that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark.


Viggo Mortensen, returns here with a brilliant performance. Mortensen gives an amazing performance, both mastering his Russian accent and rooting his deeply scarred character in reality.


Viggo Mortensen dares you to take your eyes off of him.

- Jan Stuart, NEWSDAY

Viggo Mortensen comes of age as an actor and a movie star. Mortensen has played a king of Middle-earth and, for Cronenberg, a man with two lives. This is the first time, though, his performance seemed so much bigger than the film surrounding it. That he managers the feat with so few wasted gestures puts him in line with the greats.


Viggo Mortensen reunites with Cronenberg, here, following his searing work in A History of Violence with yet another fantastic performance. The film boasts Mortensens authoritative acting and extraordinary commitment to the material.


This is Mortensens best and richest performance, worthy of serious awards consideration. He lends a moral complexity to Eastern Promises that makes it much more than just a very accomplished action thriller.

- Lou Lumenick, NEW YORK POST

Images © Focus Features.

Still Cronenberg

Source: The Village Voice.
Found By: Chrissie
Categories: Reviews

Our thanks to Chrissie for surfacing yet another great review of Eastern Promises. This one from The Village Voice.


An accessible narrative belies something much darker, and stranger, in Eastern Promises

by J. Hoberman
September 11th, 2007 1:15 PM

I've said it before and hope to again: David Cronenberg is the most provocative, original, and consistently excellent North American director of his generation. From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005), neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run.
A rhapsodic movie directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power from an original screenplay by Steve Knight, Eastern Promises is very much a companion to A History of Violence. Both are crime thrillers that allow Viggo Mortensen to play a morally ambiguous and severely divided, if not schizoid, action-hero savior; both are commissioned works that permit hired-gun Cronenberg to make a genre film that is actually something else. As slick as it is, Eastern Promises could, like A History of Violence, almost pass for an exceptionally well-made B-movie.

Graphic but never gratuitous in its violence, Eastern Promises opens on a rainy December eve with a brutal gangland murder in a London barbershop and unfolds mainly in a demimonde of Russian émigré thugs and whore- masters. Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife in a central London hospital, delivers a baby as the mother, a 14-year-old prostitute named Tatiana, dies in childbirth. Half-Russian herself, Anna filches the girl's diary, hoping to discover who she is, and asks her irascibly inebriated uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) to translate. "Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?" he asks in a question that will hang over the rest of the movie.

A business card found in the diary brings Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, administered by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). That this red and gold Nutcracker wonderland turns out to be the headquarters for the London branch of the Gulag-spawned criminal fraternity vory v zakone (thieves in law) is the least of the movie's surprises. In her attempt to fathom the origins of the orphan to whom she's given the seasonal name Christina, Anna is continually bamboozled by the Trans-Siberians, a tribe whose every pleasantry carries a threat. "This isn't our world--we are ordinary people," her anxious mother (Sinead Cusack) warns her.

As usual in Cronenberg, the ordinary is severely contested terrain. (In a new scholarly treatment of the director, Mark Browning notes that nearly all of Cronenberg's post-1982 movies are designed to "problematize exactly what constitutes 'normality.' ") However naïve and depressed Anna appears, she is on a serious--and seriously deranged--quest. She's lost a baby through miscarriage and wants another one: Tatiana's. The means by which this might be achieved are at the heart of the movie, and also its strangeness.

Cronenberg's two previous works, Spider and A History of Violence, have been murderous family dramas; Eastern Promises continues this trend. Mueller-Stahl may be perfunctory in the role of the Russian paterfamilias, but Vincent Cassel literally flings himself into the role of his wastrel son Kirill, particularly in the company of the movie's most compelling presence, the crime family's chauffeur, Nikolai (Mortensen). Here is the movie's love story; in fact, the coupling of Kirill and Nikolai has the potential to fulfill Anna's dream. Hair slicked back, eyes hidden behind wraparound shades, Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in his History of Violence roles; the actor speaks Russian as if he knows what he's saying, and his world-weary strut is at least as eloquent. Nikolai is a superbly complicated character--dark, diffident, cynical, hyper-alert, and tough enough to humorously stub out a cigarette on his tongue.

Garish yet restrained, Eastern Promises has scarcely a wasted set-up. In a close middle shot that is pure Cronenberg, Nikolai's car eases in behind Anna's parked motorcycle, a vintage Ural that belonged to her father; it's a menacing gesture that stops just short of a flirtatious caress. ("Sentimental value," Nikolai repeats when she tells him why she treasures the bike. "I've heard of that.") Nikolai is not only the family driver but their mortician: He and Kirill retrieve a dead body from the killer's freezer. Nikolai softens the corpse with an electric hair dryer. "OK, now I'm going to do his teeth and cut off his fingers," he informs his comrades. "You might want to leave room." They do, and you might wish to as well, although Cronenberg insures that we stay--at least for a few beats.

Eastern Promises is a masterful mood piece with a surplus of atmosphere. Intermittently excerpted in voice-over, Tatiana's diary is the most awkward element in Knight's otherwise impeccable screenplay--although it does introduce a current of unambiguous, otherworldly innocence in this misty, indeterminate world. Everything else is fluid. Blood flows; rain is near-constant. Corpses are tossed into the Thames, but secrets keep bobbing to the surface. Late in the movie, Eastern Promises' homoerotic subtext bursts its banks and all but floods the screen in a steamy public bathhouse with an extraordinary action sequence that must have taken a week to film.

According to the movie's characters, the world is populated by angels, devils, and human wolves. (Indeed, Eastern Promises is a Christmas story, complete with miracle.) Whenever possible, Cronenberg designs a wound that might have been inflicted by a fastidious insect from outer space, but mainly he uses a slightly wide-angle lens to keep the phantoms in sharp focus. Eastern Promises suggests a naturalized version of the recent Russian horror flick Night Watch. The vory v zakone are like a plague of vampires--governed by arcane laws and fearful superstitions. "You pronounced the name of my father," Kirill shrieks when confronted by an angry Anna. Liturgical music is heard as Nikolai kneels in his underwear, displaying his prison tattoos, for induction into the crime family. "I am already dead. I died when I was 15. Now I live in the Zone all the time," he assures his examiners.

Nikolai may be death personified but, with the possible exception of Anna's uncle, all of the Russians in Eastern Promises are walking corpses. Tatiana's diary begins by noting that the people of her village lived as though "buried in the earth." Kirill jokes that a particularly grotesque birthday celebration at the Trans-Siberia is a party for the Angel of Death. Who then will wrest the infant Christina from her clammy birthright?

Deceptively generic, Eastern Promises features Cronenberg's most unambiguous monster and straightforward narrative in years; the movie is a cosmic struggle between good and evil. But it's also an elaborate game that's played out in a fallen world filled with subterfuge and delicately limned with the pain of exile. (It hardly seems coincidental that Nikolai's last name, Luzhin, would be that of the chess-master hero of Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense.)

"I need to know who you are," Anna urgently begs this ambiguous redeemer in the movie's haunting penultimate scene. Is our Nikolai an angel, or has Anna made a deal with the devil? And suppose that amounts to the same thing? As the sardonic Nikolai might say: "What does it matter?"

© 2007 Village Voice LLC. Images © Peter Mountain/Focus Features.

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Last edited: 31 May 2023 15:42:13