After teaming up with Viggo Mortensen in 2005’s A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg decided that since he did a good job in that film, that using him again would be a good idea. This time, Mortensen plays the driver and undertaker for a Russian mob family. They’ve done some things they would rather not reveal to the police, so when the half-Russian Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) starts snooping around with a diary of a 14-year-old prostitute, they become worried.
As with many Cronenberg movies, the plot isn’t entirely complex. The basic plot structure has been used quite often. This isn’t all that important though, as it means that the film can do a better job focusing on its characters, as opposed to an intricate plot. Nikolai Luzhin is the character played by Mortensen, and he is an interesting character. He commands the screen every time he is on it. He’s a quiet character, who has many subtleties to him. The rest of the Russian mob isn’t as entertaining, but since Nikolai is almost always on the screen at the same time, they don’t really matter. Unfortunately, Anna’s character did seem underutilized. Watts doesn’t get much to work with in terms of her character, and doesn’t appear anywhere near as often after the first half hour or so. She still manages to play a big role in the plot, but most of the screen time goes to the Russian mobsters.
Speaking of the Russians, almost 1/3 of the dialogue of the film is in Russian. None of the lead actors are Russian, meaning that they are speaking in a dialect not native to them. In this regard, all the actors do an amazing job. It might just be due to the fact that I don’t speak Russian, but I would never have been able to tell that they were putting the accent on. Even when conversing in English, the accents seemed nearly flawless, with the only issue being some of the words spoken in too soft a tone to pick up properly.
Eastern Promises has been noted for a few things. One of these is its accurate portrayal of Russian mobs. Mortensen actually went and talked with real gangsters in order to research the tattoos used in the film. The film feels authentic in the way it portrays the life of a mobster. From the way they talk to the way they act, it all seems believable. The only part that seemed off was during some scenes, where there were only Russians, it would have seemed more realistic to have them speak Russian. They switch back and forth, and dwell primarily in the English side of dialogue. I know that it is marketed internationally, and to many people, reading subtitles is undesirable, but it takes away a slight bit of the authenticity the film strives for. Not a big chunk, mind, but enough to be noticeable.
Another thing that Eastern Promises has been praised for is the plot twist it has near the end of the film. This is the biggest thing the film comes to having a big problem. I didn’t find it surprising in the least, as it is hinted at again and again throughout the film. When it came, it felt anticlimactic, and it didn’t do what a good twist should do. It barely had any change on the characters, it didn’t change the previous plot any, and it didn’t affect the perspective of the audience. It makes the film a slight bit more interesting, but that’s it. It could have been revealed at the start, and just seeing the transformations of characters would be interesting by itself. It’s not a terrible twist, but it felt unnecessary. The only thing it does is make the ending ambiguous, something that I am thankful for.
Too often are endings completely finite in their conclusion. There are many times in which nothing is left up to the imagination of the viewer. Eastern Promises goes the opposite route; it makes you think about the characters at its conclusion. You aren’t quite sure where they all end up in life, and in the case of Nikolai especially, you never get to know what his background is. This makes him even more interesting, as not knowing what he went through before this film fits its theme perfectly.
Eastern Promises isn’t your standard film. The plot is basic, and doesn’t try to do anything that hasn’t been done before, but the true beauty of the film lies in its characters, Nikolai especially. He’s an incredibly interesting character, whose background is never revealed. This makes him even more enticing, and the acting done by Viggo Mortensen is definitely deserving of the Oscar Nomination he got for the role. His Russian seems great, and his accent is nearly flawless. The twist ending could have been better, but it does allow the film to lead up to a satisfactory conclusion.