After a 14-year old Russian girl dies giving birth on her shift, London nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) finds her diary and, using a business card found in it, goes to a restaurant to see if she can find out anything about the girl and any family she might have who might be able to take care of the baby. Unbeknownst to her, Anna has stumbled into the world of the vory y zakone, a dark underworld dominated by the quiet but deadly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and their 'driver', Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson).
Whilst the entire cast are good, with the possible exception of Cassel, but more on that later, we shouldn't kid ourselves; this is very much Viggo Mortenson's film. Mortenson spent three weeks travelling around Russia without a translator in preparation for the film, studying the accents and the behaviour of Russian criminals and it really shows in his performance. Nikolai is a professional, a man dedicated to his work who can put all questions of conscience aside and Mortenson's ice cool perfromance is perfect for the character. However, the film also takes pains to establish that Nikolai is merely an underling in the organisation, as illustrated by a scene in which he is totally dominated by the weaker Kirill. It's also to his and Watts' credit that they make the uneasy friendship that forms between them feel quite natural, when it could seem incredibly forced otherwise.
That's not to say it's a one man show, far from it. Watts is sweet yet tough as Anna, Jerzy Skolimowski is surly yet affable as Anna's uncle Stepan, and Mueller-Stahl imbues Semyon with a gentleness that never truly hides his implied menace. The only weak link in the cast, and this is only relatively speaking, is Vincent Cassel as the unhinged Kirill. Now, Cassel is fine, but he makes Kirill simultaneously too big a character and yet not big enough; he is just too manic and prone to shifts in mood that he is set apart from the rest of the cast, yet he's not so truly huge as to see like an anomaly in a world of professionals. It's not a huge dent against the quality of the film by any means, it's just that he manages to be distracting without being outstanding.
Though Mortenson may dominate the acting side of things, there can be no mistaking that this is a David Cronenberg film. Despite the change of location (this being the first of his films to be shot entirely outside of Canada) his concerns remain very much the same. Cronenberg's obsession with the human body comes through very strongly in the films emphasis on tattoos and the role they play in the world of the vory y zakone; each one representing part of the life story of those being inked and their position in Semyon's organisation.
Elsewhere, Cronenberg continues the trend of A History of Violence by including numerous scenes of brutal violence. This is no detour into torture porn, though; Cronenberg presents the violence in an unflinching, unstylised way that is quite sickening at times. His attention to detail and trying to make the deaths seem realistic, even going so far as to have those whose throats have been cut produce a sickening gurgling sound, adds to the gruesome impact of the film. One particular scene features such terrifying violence, combined with an almost unbearable tension, that it adds up to one of the most memorable scenes of violence that I've seen in a film for some time.
Steven Knight's script, combined with Cronenberg's simple, unfussy direction, creates a lean film which very rarely strays from its central plot strand. Whilst this does give the film much of its power, it also hinders it somewhat since what little flab there is in the film is incredibly noticeable. For example, the scene in which Anna's uncle reveals that she had previously gone out with a black man and that they had had a miscarriage feels like tacked on back story that adds nothing to the film. If anything, it takes away from it; how much more powerful and intriguing would Anna crying over Christine be if we didn't know about her miscarriage? The film also goes on one scene too long, in my opinion, sticking on a rather too obvious coda in favour of ending on a more etheral ending, but that's a minor quibble.
A few problems aside, Eastern Promises is a very fine film. Mortenson is on top form, the film looks suitably grim and showcases a side of London that is sinister in its unfamiliar familiarity, and the violence, whilst graphic, is integral to the story and its impact. Powerful stuff.