'Eastern Promises' - A Stunning Film

Source: The Charleston Gazette

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Viggo Mortensen has one of the most incredible faces in the world, striking and amazingly versatile. His rough-hewn, chiseled visage allows him to inhabit any character he wants to, regardless of background or ethnicity, and we buy into it unconditionally.

Through physical appearance alone, Mortensen can be both Lord of the Rings' rugged warrior and noble king and Hidalgo's half-Lakota cowboy. He was even entirely convincing as an everyman with a shady past in A History of Violence.

It's no surprise then that his turn as a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises is yet another triumph. What is surprising is just how fantastic he is in the role.

Although his acting chops have never been in doubt, what Mortensen accomplishes in the role of Nikolai Luzhin, the driver of a Russian mob family, goes beyond simply good acting -- it's a complete transformation. With his flawless Russian accent, tattoo-covered body and a face so sharp it looks like it could cut diamonds, he becomes nearly unrecognizable, even without the use of prosthetics or heavy makeup.

Nikolai is arguably Mortensen's most deeply drawn and accomplished character to date. It's a performance worthy of the highest praise and one that will surely catapult him to the top ranks of in-demand actors.

In fact, his performance is so excellent it's easy to forget that the film it serves is every bit as good. Eastern Promises is the latest from director David Cronenberg and the director's second pairing with Mortensen after "A History of Violence."

Just as that film showcased Cronenberg's maturation as a director -- from grisly, gory horror fare to serious, thought-provoking thrillers -- Eastern Promises proves that his skill (and taste) has improved even further since then. It isn't a stomach-churning horror movie, nor is it an exploitatively violent thriller.

Instead, it's a dark, cerebral crime drama in the vein of The Godfather. While Cronenberg may seem an unlikely choice to helm such a picture, just as Mortensen may seem an unlikely choice to star in one, both decisions are inspired choices.

The plot concerns divided loyalties in an organized-crime family, made all the more complicated by the interruptions of a midwife's quest to find a home for a baby that may or may not have connections to the mob. It's a compelling story, but it's the talent attached to it that makes Eastern Promises so phenomenal.

It would be a true shame to ignore the other great actors besides Mortensen who are involved here. German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl is both grandfatherly and ruthlessly evil as Semyon, the head of the crime family. Frenchman Vincent Cassel strikes the perfect balance between vileness and vulnerability as his son, Kirill. The always-dependable Naomi Watts rounds out the main cast as Anna Khitrova, the midwife who becomes unexpectedly involved in the criminal organization.

The much-discussed scene in which a naked Nikolai gets involved in a brutal two-against-one fight in a Turkish bath is one of the most shocking and effective in the movie. In an age where fight scenes are so choreographed and stylized they lose impact, this brawl is so brutal and violent that it's almost frightening.

Cronenberg reminds us that there is nothing pretty about violence, delivering a scene of astonishing savagery and visceral impact. The actors' wounds look so real and their performances so committed, it's hard to believe they're acting.

Everyone involved in Eastern Promises has reached new artistic heights. Let's hope these creative achievements translate into financial ones, for this film is entirely deserving of them. If the film and those who brought it to fruition are not nominated when awards season rolls around, it will be nothing short of sinful.
Last edited: 19 November 2007 13:55:27
© The Charleston Gazette.