David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises has all the elements of a conventional crime thriller, except that it has the ambition to be more, and a director with the skill to push it beyond genre limitations. It begins with two deaths and a birth – one death is a violet, mob related murder; the other is a death in childbirth and, given what we quickly come to understand about the mother, it can ultimately be seen as no less violent. The mother is Tatiana, a 14-year-old Russian girl with bruises all over her body and her death and the birth of her daughter are overseen by Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife and second generation Brit, who discovers a diary amongst Tatiana’s possessions. Determined to keep the baby from entering into the foster care system, Anna decides to have the diary translated in the hope that it will lead her to Tatiana’s next of kin.
Anna’s search leads her to a Trans-Siberian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who ultimately offers to translate the diary. Only after providing him with a copy does Anna learn that Semyon is a mobster and that Tatiana was brought to Britain, forced into prostitution, and raped by Semyon and his unstable son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), whose desire to prove himself to his father and protect his image against rumours regarding his sexuality led to the murder at the opening of the film. That murder, of a Chechan mob leader, is cleaned up by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) and when word gets back to Semyon about the hit, he’s livid both because he did not authorize it and because he expects that the reprisal from the Chechan gang will be fierce.
The two plot threads dovetail when Semyon offers to sponsor Nikolai as a full-fledged member of the mob as thanks for cleaning up after Kirill and for taking care of the other situation by getting Anna to hand over the original diary and getting rid of Anna’s Russian uncle, a former KGB agent who reads the diary and tells her the truth about Semyon. Unbeknownst to Nikolai, his reward for a job well done comes with an ulterior motive: the Chechan gang knows that Kirill is behind the hit, but don’t know what Kirill looks like. When Nikolai is inducted into the mob, he’s given a star tattoo on his shoulder and that tattoo allows Semyon to set Nikolai up by creating a situation where the Chechans can get at him, believing that he’s Kirill. The result is the now famous bath house fight scene which leaves Nikolai battered but alive, and the revelation (to the audience, but not to Semyon and the mob) that Nikolai is a federal agent who has infiltrated the mob.
Although Eastern Promises ultimately functions on a smaller, less operatic scale, there are a number of comparisons that can be drawn between it and The Godfather. The most notable similarity is the emphasis on “family” and the juxtaposition of the rituals of family gatherings with rituals of violence. Here, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, family celebrations play out in one location while murder takes place in another, emphasising the image of the gangsters as “family men” and the reality of them as men with blood on their hands. Where Eastern Promises diverges sharply from The Godfather is that we are never asked to sympathize with these men. The Godfather sees its story from their point-of-view, not that of their victims, whereas Eastern Promises is intensely aware that its gangsters are the villains and aware, as well, that even Nikolai, who is actually on the side of good, does not have wholly clean hands.
The theme of performance, presenting one thing in order to hide another, dominates the film and its characters. Semyon conveys the image of the gentle, grandfatherly restaurateur to hide the truth that he’s a violent and feared gangster; Nikolai plays the role of the loyal soldier to mask the fact that he’s a spy; Kirill attempts to pass himself off as what he believes to be the macho ideal in an attempt to obscure the truth about his sexuality. The only people who aren’t performing are Anna and the trafficked women whom Semyon and Kirill abuse and make money off of. By the end of the film, the masks have been removed, albeit not completely: Kirill proves himself to be far less brutal than he’d like people to believe he is, while Semyon’s brutality has been proved beyond a doubt. Nikolai, meanwhile, shares a moment of tenderness with Anna which reveals who he really is, only to have to turn right around and get back into character, knowing that he may never get to be his real self again.
The film is firmly anchored by Mortensen’s performance, which never for a moment feels anything less than authentic. For the film’s first half, the performance is largely impenetrable, as it must be, because the character is so highly on guard. It’s only in the second half, when Nikolai’s true identity begins to come into focus, that the film starts to allow the audience under the character’s skin and get a feeling for who he truly is – though it of course hints from the beginning that there’s more to him than we’re being shown. The change that occurs in the character happens gradually and Mortensen and director David Cronenberg ensure that it happens as smoothly as possible. Eastern Promises was the second of the three films the pair have made together to date (the first being A History of Violence, the third being A Dangerous Method) and it’s clear that the two bring out the best in each other as over the past decade they’ve quietly become one of the most dependable director-actor teams out there. Rumour has it that an Eastern Promises sequel is in the works; one can only hope that it proves to be true.