It seems appropriate that Viggo Mortensen – one of this generation’s greatest exponents of the technique of method acting – should play a Russian in Eastern Promises, given the technique’s origins as Stanislavski’s ‘system’ in the early part of the 20th century. Once again, Mortensen dominates all those who share his screen in a performance so engrossing he must surely be rewarded at Awards time.
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife in a busy London hospital, and delivers the baby of a young Russian prositute who then dies from a placental abruption. In her quest to find a family for the orphan baby girl she calls Christine, she comes across a diary that will threaten the lives of those she loves and the men who caused a 14-year-old girl to be in such a state. A shaky alliance with the driver (Mortensen) for a Russian mob boss will lead to unexpected consequences for them both.
Eastern Promises is at times a brutal film. Scenes are filled with casual violence and the audience is privy to all that occurs – none of the suggestion of things unseen for Cronenberg. The treatment of the earlier sequences allows the nature of these men and their world to be realistically brought to life, and seems far more effective than screen violence that is flagged ‘look at me’. As the tension quietly builds leading to the crucial developments that are hinted at throughout, the final release is a scene of ferocious barbarity that may live with the viewer for some time.
Mortensen is stunning in the lead male role, completely immersing himself in his turn as Nikolai. His accent, demeanour and even body language are all spot on. He is paired with Watts who, although she doesn’t shine as brightly as her costar, does exactly what is asked of her in a relatively unrewarding character. Armin Mueller-Stahl is suitably menacing as Semyon, however Vincent Cassel plays his son Kirill as too much of a dropkick ever to succeed in the tough world they live in.
Shot as a bleak view of the less visible side of London, the menace of the action is complemented brilliantly by the darkness of the cinematography. Sound and set design add to the overall sense that this place exists… and you’d better try to avoid it.
Eastern Promises has very strong claims as one of the best films of 2007, and not only due to the startling performance of its leading man. It is an immersive experience that evokes what seems to be the reality for a segment of society far less fortunate than many of us.Rating: