Eastern Promises is one of those multilayered films that you should be REALLY cautious about reading reviews about. You don't want to learn key parts of the plot before you go into the movie, because it is fascinating to watch them unfold. This is a completely spoiler free review for that reason.
Eastern Promises is about the Russian Mob scene in London, England. Viggo Mortensen is Nikolai, a Siberian-born low level mob member - a 'driver only' as he constantly makes clear. He is the support of the boss' son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel, recently famous for being the French Thief in the Ocean's 11 series). Kirill is a bit of a wastrel and needs all the help he can get. Into this world comes Naomi Watts as Anna, a midwife at a local hospital. She delivers a baby for a 13 year old Russian girl who then dies on the table. Anna finds the girl's diary and wants to track down the baby's family. Unfortunately for her, the diary is in Russian.
Of course it becomes clear pretty quickly that the girl in question was a prostitute to the Russian mob, an unwilling prisoner. Anna's quest to get the diary's information runs up against the mob who would much rather the whole issue go away quietly. Anna can't let it go, and Nikolai gets caught in the middle as the enforcer who needs to follow the rules.
Both Nikolai and Anna have to "hide their emotions" and only let out glimpses of how they feel. Nikolai as a mobster must always be as close-to-the-vest as possible. Anna, a midwife who has just had a miscarriage herself and had her boyfriend leave her, is also keeping her emotions under wraps. To see the glimpses shine out through their eyes is very powerful.
To give away any more would do a great disservice to this fantastic film, so let me talk in generalities. The actors are *superb*. I grew up in a Ukrainian household and Viggo's serious research into his part has really paid off. He actually went to Siberia to hang out with "tough guys" and picked up many of the mannerisms and speech patterns of that area. He also did a great deal of research into the tattoo culture of the mob and his research was then used in the movie.
Interestingly, Viggo says in the director's commentary that he once went out for lunch with the tattoos still on, and realized that a Russian couple was staring at the marks with fear. It both made him happy that his research was well done and also very guilty that he had inadvertently upset them. He made sure never to wear the tattoos out in public again after that.
Much has been made about a multi-minute completely nude fight scene he has in a steam bath. It is amazing in this day and age that women are routinely asked to go completely naked (and the prostitites sometimes are in this film) but if a *guy* is nude it's shocking. Maybe this says something about the level of equality in the world. Interestingly, Viggo said right out that he had no problem doing this scene and I think it really shows just how vulnerable his character was, to have nothing but his own wits to save his life.
If other actors had handled these parts I imagine it would have been all in English which really would have cut down on the immersion factor. Instead, because of Viggo's language talents and the talents of the other actors, fair parts of the film are in Russian, which really gives you a great sense for the richness of the language's sound.
Highly, highly recommended. This is one of those DVDs that is great to own, because every time you watch it you see one more layer in the way the characters react to dialogue, glance at each other and emit a wealth of emotion in the subtlest of looks.
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