Cronenberg Excels

(Canscene) — With the contribution of Viggo Mortensen whom he starred in A History of Violence heading a splendid cast, David Cronenberg has outdone all his previous efforts with the brilliant Eastern Promises.

Nikolai meets Anna
This is one of two festival films in which Canada’s most risk-taking big budget producer, Robert Lantos, has a hand, the other being Fugitive Pieces, yet to be reviewed.

London, England is the setting for this story of how Anna, a young hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) living with her grumpy, Russian-born uncle (Jerzy Skolimowsky ) and his British-born wife (Sinead Cusack) helps save the child of a pregnant, addicted, teen-aged prostitute who dies giving birth, leaving nothing but a diary written in Russian.

Her concern for the baby leads to her search for its relatives and in her efforts to find a translator she encounters a trio who’ll draw her into the sinister underworld of the Russian mafia.

She contacts restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) whose business is a front for the criminal organization Vory V Zakone. She also meets his volatile, luxury loving, alcoholic son Kirill (Vincent Kassel) who lacks discipline to Semyon’s embarrassment, and is constantly reminding his chauffeur-henchman Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) of their master-servant relationship. Anna is puzzled by Nikolai.

To say more would be to offer a “spoiler” but this cleverly plotted drama never for once lets up in its relentless drive toward a surprising climax.

For me, Eastern Promises has everything a film of its genre needs: An excellent script by Steve Knight, superbly targeted direction by Cronenberg, evocative cinematography of London’s mean streets by Peter Suschitsky and fine performances by the entire cast.

Mortensen, Stahl and Watts create nuanced characters that are Oscar-worthy. Mortensen’s enigmatic Nikolai and Watts’ perplexed Anna create a hovering chemistry that has the viewer wondering where their relationship will end. Mueller-Stahl as Semyon exercises a sly charm that in seconds can strip itself to reveal the monster he really is.

With his usual flair for extreme, but inventive, violence Cronenberg has included some scenes which well illustrate the vicious nature of organized crime and are essential to the plot.

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