****1/2 out of *****
What a wonderful surprise “Eastern Promises” is! This is a film that, despite having just won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival, arrives in theaters with relatively little marketing or promotion. No matter. “Eastern Promises” is a film made for word of mouth, though its best surprises (and there are several of them) are better kept secret.
The film deftly interweaves two stories about two very different people. There’s Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a second-generation Russian living in London with her mother and uncle. Anna works as a midwife in a hospital where, one night, a pregnant teenage girl comes in with massive hemorrhaging. Anna saves the baby, but the mother dies.
Running parallel to Anna’s story is that of Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a driver for a Russian mafia family headed by the assured and callous Seymon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Anna and Nikolai’s paths cross when Anna, having found the girl’s diary, traces it back to a restaurant that serves as a front for Nikolai’s employers.
Anna is determined to find the dead girl’s family so that the baby can have a proper home. Seymon agrees to help her, but he wants the diary, which implicates his hotheaded son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in some unsavory business.
Part of what makes “Eastern Promises” so involving is how Steve Knight’s script balances a gripping crime drama with nuanced, realistic characters.
Anna is a living breathing person, recovering from a failed relationship and a miscarriage. She’s not the type of character we often see in a crime drama, yet she’s tenacious and principled, and she’s not about to take the easy way out.
And Nikolai, although a familiar character in films about crime, is anything but typical-he’s a man who’s very good at brutality, but wishes he wasn’t. Nikolai’s decision to help Anna behind Seymon’s back shows that there’s still some humanity left beneath his calculating veneer.
Director David Cronenberg gives the film an unhurried pace that allows these characters to talk and behave, though there’s always the potential for violence in the air.
And when violence does erupt, it occurs in nondescript places like a barber shop or a steam room, all of which lends to the film’s unflinching realism.
I could go on about the script and the direction, but I realize I haven’t even addressed the performances. Watts grounds the film and gives us someone to identify with and root for, while Mortensen disappears into his role, making Nikolai one of the most compelling characters in a movie this year.
“Eastern Promises” is truly unforgettable, entertaining without pandering, intelligent as well as poignant. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Entertainment writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.