Peter Mountain/ Focus Features
Review in a Hurry: Director David Cronenberg and his A History of Violence compatriot Viggo Mortenson are back with another tale of complicated bloodshed. But even with Naomi Watts providing a little extra star power, Eastern Promises takes more than it gives.
The Bigger Picture: Eastern Promises begins with a murder, a death and a birth, in quick succession and executed with Cronenberg's usual zeal for the biological.
Would that the rest of the film kept the pace; instead it's a meandering amalgam of trite mysteries and measured, smoldering confrontations.
When London nurse Anna (Watts) takes pity on a newborn orphan, she unwittingly stumbles into a web of Russian mob intrigues, crossing paths with inscrutable gangster Nikolai (Mortenson) who claims, in his impeccably thick accent, to be nothing more than a driver. (Obviously, we know better.) As Anna searches for someone to adopt her orphan, Nikolai rises in his own adoptive family, and each becomes entangled in the other's life.
But only loosely, and it's this that makes the film a tragedy of unfulfilled potential. As bloody good as parts of Eastern Promises are, as a whole it's a bloody mess. Cronenberg's dramatic shifts in focus—enamored of admittedly fascinating mafia minutiae, he loses the thread once too often—leaves the audience wondering exactly whose story this is. Gentle, forthright Anna's? Mysterious, brooding Nikolai's? The dead mother of Anna's orphan, heard in jarring voice-over flashbacks? Even at the end, it's never clear, and several crucial scenes seem to have gone unfilmed.
Structured differently—say, a series of vignettes that give each character a conclusion in turn—Eastern Promises might have been powerful and engrossing. But as it is, the film's promise is just made to be broken.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Can't fault the actors for trying. Mortenson is as good as you'd expect and a credit to his dialogue coach, and Armin Muehller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel are wonderful as a father and son whose family business is crime.