It is not often that audiences today are treated to a film that has as many things going for it as Eastern Promises does. Whether it's because of interference from studios determined to make their products as marketable as possible, filmmakers who favor style over substance, or just a plain old shortage of originality, nowadays it is a treat when a film fan can leave the theater and feel affected by the artistry that he/she has just experienced.
On the surface, Eastern Promises is a straightforward crime story about people who don't appear to be terribly complex. But somehow, the combination of the narrative, the mood, and the humanness of the characters create an alchemy that transcends this film from something that could have been common into something quite unique and memorable. Noirish settings, dedicated medical professionals, and mobsters and their loyal henchmen are all commonplace enough in movies as to risk being clichés. Yet everything in this film about a London midwife who stumbles into contact with the Russian mob as she seeks clues to the identity of a teen who died in childbirth mesh together wonderfully and fully engage the viewer.
While it all starts with the script, credit must be given to the director, David Cronenberg for bringing it to life, and for the cast, who created living, breathing characters who the viewer cares about- whether they are likable or not, good or evil, or not quite so easy to read. They seem real.
At the core of the film is "Nikolai," the loyal chauffeur to the kingpin's volatile son. "Nikolai" is both enigmatic and mesmerizing. We know he is a man with a past and with secrets, but we really don't know what his goals and motives are. We don't know who he is, yet somehow, just as the half-Russian midwife, "Anna", we are drawn to him and trust that there is goodness in him, even as were are not quite sure we should. It is a skillful, yet understated performance that quietly blows you away.
Although Eastern Promises has some of the director's signature moments of eye-popping violence, they do not dominate this film and it is the quiet moments- where the characters are silently contemplating aspects of their own existence that give the film its power. We can see the introspection and pain on their faces, but the script leaves so much unsaid, and so much about the two main characters (played by Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts) we come to care about so much remain a beautiful, haunting mystery.