Eastern Promises is a 2007 British-Canadian-American crime thriller film written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and directed by David Cronenberg. The film stars Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, and Armin-Mueller-Stahl. This film marks the second time Cronenberg and Mortensen have collaborated following 2005’s excellent A History of Violence. Eastern Promises follows Anna, a nurse and midwife of Russian-British heritage living with her mother and uncle in London. Anna delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian girl, who dies in childbirth. Anna finds the diary of the young woman in her personal effects, and learns that she was tricked and forced into prostitution by the Russian Mafia. Anna also finds a card for a restaurant owned by Semyon, an old Russian mobster. Anna sets out to discover the identity of the baby’s father, in order to find the child a home. She is drawn into a vast conspiracy involving Seymon’s unstable son, Kirill, and the mysterious driver Nikolai, soon realizing she may be in way over her head.
Eastern Promises is a rather bold film that chooses to explore rather dark themes that not a lot of films do. For some reason, filmmakers are fine exploring the world of drugs and murder, but I have not seen a lot of films explore the crime of sex trafficking; it is a rather uncomfortable subject nobody likes to discuss, especially in the realm of fiction. I understand why, as I personally find it to be one of the most heinous and disgusting crimes ever to exist. Nobody likes to think about it, which is why it takes guts to put it front and center in a crime thriller ostensibly meant to entertain. The effect that sex trafficking has on the many people involved is front and center here, and Knight’s script sugarcoats nothing. I applaud Steven Knight for bringing this up; even though it is, on the surface, a mere work of fiction, it should get the audience thinking, or make them aware of, the horrific crime occurring worldwide today right under our very noses.
Like any good crime film, Eastern Promises focuses as much on the criminals as it does on the ordinary people. The inner workings and mentality of the Russian Mafia, specifically the idea of vory v zakone is discussed in-depth in this film. Through some excellent writing, mobsters Kirill and Nikolai are as empathetic characters as Anna. You know what they want, you feel for the both of them. Kirill wants respect from his brutal and sadistic father, and wants to bring his (much more capable and competent) friend Nikolai along for the ride. Kirill is a raging dick, but watch him suffer torrents of abuse by his ungrateful father, and you begin to understand him. Empathy for the villains is what turns a good movie into a great movie, and Eastern Promises is, in my opinion, a pretty great movie.
Director David Cronenberg is famous for the brilliant body horror films Scanners, The Dead Zone, and The Fly. With both A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, it may seem as though Cronenberg has gone completely out of his comfort zone. However, make no mistake; Eastern Promises may lack monsters or exploding heads, but this film is unflinching and brutal in its depiction of violence and murder, and although never what I personally would describe as “horrific,” Cronenberg is easily able to succeed in making the viewer feel uncomfortable, using techniques he no doubt picked up in his career as an auter of horror.
Cronenberg also avoided using guns in the movie at all, opting instead for knives. Cronenberg has stated that this was for the purposes of realism, as knives would be easier to conceal, but considering the somewhat exaggerated effects of these knives when they are used in the film, I would say Cronenberg’s horror traits were simply showing again, not that it is at all a bad thing.
The brilliance of Eastern Promises also owes itself to top-notch acting by almost everyone involved, especially Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen, who shows off supreme talent and acting ability here. The underrated Danish-American actor will, it seems, be forever known by the masses for his role as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and not for other roles like this one. The character of Nikolai is the most interesting and mysterious character of this film, and that lends just as much to Mortensen’s flawless acting as it does to the great script.
Eastern Promises is a great film filled with violence, intrigue, and empathy that has the guts to explore something that occurs in the world that many people fear to acknowledge. With word on the street being a sequel will begin production soon, I would advise picking up this movie ASAP if you are interested. To conclude, with the help of a brilliant and accomplished director, a brilliant writer, and extremely talented actors, Eastern Promises is an impactful, entertaining, and thought-provoking crime film that I enjoyed, and I think a lot of my readers will, too.