I really enjoyed Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, so when I heard they were teaming up again for Eastern Promises, I had very high expectations.
Eastern Promises offers a powerfully subdued yet intense performance by Viggo Mortensen as a Russian driver/enforcer working his way up London’s most notorious Russian crime family. Mortensen has proven himself a chameleon with the roles he’s chosen of late, and I had no trouble accepting him as a merciless, cold, calculating—and oddly charming—criminal.
The premise of the story seems straightforward on the surface, but there are some complex developments that caught me unawares. Essentially Naomi Watts, a hospital worker, is trying to track down relation for a baby recently born to a teenage Russian prostitute who died during labor. All she has is a diary written in Russian, which, as fate would have it, leads her right to the door of the Russian mob and Viggo Mortensen. Watts finds herself intertwined in an alien world, ultimately putting the baby in more danger than she ever could have realized.
Cronenberg delivers a compelling and utterly realistic film delving into a topic I found completely original. I’ve never seen much involving the Russian mafia, especially one based in London, so there was nothing familiar to me about this movie. I’m certain that’s one of the many reasons I enjoyed it so much.
There are moments of potent violence in Eastern Promises, but they are brief and not as frequent as you might expect. The psychological tension is palpable in this film, and that’s what will have you on the edge of your seat more so than any bloodshed.
I would, however, be remiss to avoid discussing the infamous bathhouse knife fight. Yes, Viggo Mortensen displays extreme devotion to his character by recording a scene totally nude as men attack him with knives in a bathhouse. I suppose if you hit pause you could see everything you wanted to know about Mortensen, but it all happens so fast and the camera work is so sporadic that the viewer sees nothing more than glimpses and blurs. I can’t imagine getting tossed around on tile floors like that without any sort of … well, you know. Mortensen is definitely willing to take one for the team and suffer for his art.
Eastern Promises moved at an incredibly fast pace and the tense storyline and character-driven acting impressed me to no end. I had high expectations for this film, and they were exceeded.