Promising beginnings

Cronenberg’s latest starts strong but stumbles at the end

In Eastern Promises Naomi Watts is Anna a midwife at a London hospital. After delivering the baby of a young girl who dies in childbirth Anna finds her diary written in Russian along with the business card of a local restaurant. Hoping to save the child from foster care she visits the restaurant and speaks to the charming elderly owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who offers to translate the diary. Anna gives him photocopies and promises to return in a few days. In the meantime Anna’s live-in Russian uncle begins to translate the original revealing that the young mother had ties to a Russian criminal brotherhood the Vory V Zakone.

The latest from Canadian director David Cronenberg Eastern Promises features a stellar cast and a topical premise. Written by Stephen Frears who also penned Dirty Pretty Things the film explores the world of Russian mob life in London and all that goes with it — black markets illegal drugs human trafficking branding and allegiance family and animalistic behaviour. As can be expected from a Cronenberg film there are scenes of explicit violence. The brutal opening scene features a young boy sawing open the throat of a man in a barber’s chair while the most memorable sequence of the film has a naked Viggo Mortensen fighting off two armed Chechen thugs in a bathhouse.

Visually the film is stunning. The violent scenes are so graphic they are sometimes unwatchable but the settings are rich and moody and the shots dramatic. The story itself is disappointing though. Things start off well with subtle layered dialogue intriguing characters and a story that pulls you in (who doesn’t love a good mafia mystery?). The stories of the two main characters Anna and Nikolai develop slowly. We see Anna’s need to find a family for the motherless baby justified artlessly when her uncle mentions her recent miscarriage. Nikolai slowly ascends the ranks of the Vory delicately maintaining a relationship with Kirill while trying to get closer to his father. Unfortunately things fall apart in the second half with a couple of foreseeable plot twists and a surprisingly melodramatic Hollywood romance.

Promises ends neatly which is a departure for Cronenberg who usually likes to leave things unresolved and wide open. The film works as a decent mob picture but fails to deliver on the promise of its first half.