The story told in Eastern Promises (2007) is a grim and violent one, set in London’s expatriate Russian underworld. The film, directed by David Cronenberg from a script by Steve Knight, revisits a number of themes and motifs that are staples of the genre: the ties of family and culture that bind criminal organizations; Oedipal drama; honor among thieves. The audience stumbles into this realm in the company of an innocent outsider (Naomi Watts) who finds herself at once fascinated and repelled by it, as well as in considerable danger.
But even as the turns of its narrative and the contours of its characters are recognizable, very little about Eastern Promises feels predictable or secondhand. From his early days making low-budget horror movies in Canada to his current ascendancy as a favorite of the international critical cognoscenti, Mr. Cronenberg has always been a master of estrangement. He and his cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, shoot the dark, rain-slicked London streets in tones that turn the city into a sinister, palpitating presence. Mr. Cronenberg’s deliberate, almost stately pacing — the way he lingers in scenes for an extra beat or two, as if studying the faces of his actors for clues — transforms what might have been a routine thriller into something genuinely troubling.
Mr. Knight deserves a lot of credit as well, since he is clearly as interested in the social and ethical implications of the story as he is in its twists and reversals. Among the other screenplays he has written are those for Dirty Pretty Things, another peek into the murky byways of multicultural London, and Amazing Grace, a stirring biography of the 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Eastern Promises like those earlier movies, is fundamentally about the moral scandal of slavery, the traffic in human bodies and human misery that persists, in secret and in the shadows, even in the modern, cosmopolitan West.
The plot of Dirty Pretty Things turned on the sale of organs for transplant. Eastern Promises glances at the consequences of the global sex trade, particularly as it involves women and girls from the former Soviet Union. Ms. Watts’s character, Anna, is a midwife at a London hospital — the daughter of a Russian father and a British mother (Sinead Cusack) — obsessed with the background of a baby she has delivered. The infant’s mother was a teenage girl who died in childbirth, leaving behind a diary that chronicled her horrific exploitation and that may contain information about the identities of her tormentors.
Rather guilelessly, Anna follows a trail that leads her to an elegant Russian restaurant, whose proprietor, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), is a soft-spoken monster with twinkly blue eyes. When he is not decorating birthday cakes for exiled dowagers, Semyon leads a local chapter of the Vory v Zakone, the Russian Cosa Nostra, born in Stalin’s prison camps, whose members are known, like Japanese yakuza, by the tattoos that cover their skin.
Anna, who speaks no Russian, is innocent of the ways of the Vory, but her irascible uncle Stepan (played by the veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), warns her to steer clear of them.
Several forces combine to pull her into their orbit, though. In addition to her desire to honor the dead girl and protect the baby, there seems to be a trace of the sentimental curiosity that an assimilated, second-generation immigrant might feel about the old country. And then there is Nikolai, the well-mannered, ambitious ex-convict with slicked-back silver hair who serves as driver and wingman for Semyon’s impulsive, unhappy son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
Nikolai, who presents himself to Semyon as both loyal and ambitious, is played, with flawless control, by Viggo Mortensen. The immovable hair and the deep dimple in his slightly crooked chin suggest a young Kirk Douglas, but Mr. Douglas was never this quiet. In A History of Violence, Mr. Mortensen seamlessly impersonated an ordinary, decent small-town guy who was also a cold, professional killer. Nikolai is a similarly ambiguous — or perhaps divided — character. He is all hard, tense muscle, and yet an almost subliminal hint of compassion occasionally shines through his icy, impassive face.
Eastern Promises is itself an intriguing, not always stable mixture of moods and attitudes. There are, as usual in Mr. Cronenberg’s films, scenes of intimate brutality that you almost absorb physically, rather than with your eyes. (One, a grisly knife fight in a steam room, with Mr. Mortensen wearing only his tattoos, is likely to become a touchstone for cinema fetishists of various kinds.)
The rigor of Mr. Cronenberg’s direction sometimes seems at odds with the humanism of Mr. Knight’s script, but more often the director’s ruthless formal command rescues the story from its maudlin impulses. Mr. Knight aims earnestly for your heartstrings, but Mr. Cronenberg insists on getting under your skin. The result is a movie whose images and implications are likely to stay in your head for a long time.
Review courtesy of The New York Times