Eastern Promises

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Eastern Promises
Review (8/10)
(By Rich Cline)

Cronenberg merges his intriguing worldview with writer Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) to create a haunting, unsettling thriller. It features strikingly good performances, as well as a realistic vision of London's darker, wetter corners.

Anna (Watts) is a London midwife with Russian heritage who treats a pregnant 14-year-old, losing the patient but saving the baby. While searching for the family, Anna meets a Russian mobster, Semyon (Mueller-Stahl), his live-wire son Kirill (Cassel) and their faithful driver Nikolai (Mortensen). Semyon is shifty and suspicious, while Nikolai is strangely helpful, but Anna knows that she's already in trouble--a fact confirmed by her Russian uncle Stepan (Skolimowski). As a cop (Sumpter) closes in and the baby's life becomes a threat to the mafia, Anna will need to trust Nikolai in order to survive.

The story is riveting, increasing its grip on us as it deepens and progresses. The characters are vivid, complex and intriguing, constantly revealing secrets and giving us hints about revelations to come. These are meaty roles, and the actors really run with them. Cronenberg directs the cast to his usual slightly heightened reality, which invests every line and action with subtext and refuses to spoon-feed the answers.

This rather creepy approach works especially well with the Russians; Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl all deliver strikingly provocative turns as men with deep moral issues. While Kirill operates at full-pitch, Nikolai matter-of-factly goes about his gruesome business. And Mortensen deserves additional credit for a viciously unnerving fight in which he takes on two Chechen thugs while wearing only his elaborate tattoos. By contrast, Watts is naturalistic and textured as the innocent who wanders into the lion's den.

Cronenberg expertly establishes a quietly menacing tone from the start, mixing hideous grisliness with dark humour and even some surprising emotion. Rumours and innuendo continually complicate the plot, which has several sharp turns along the way that are beautifully played as slowly revealed truth rather than movie surprises. And with such expert filmmaking, the issue of human trafficking actually emerges much more strongly than if it descended into Hollywood-style preachiness. Like those elaborate mob tattoos, this film gets under your skin and stays there.

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