From the first scene of “Eastern Promises,” you may think that you’re in for a routine Cronenberg film that revels in its own explicitness. But as the director’s recent trend toward subtlety takes over, you realize that he may be best served going back to his roots.
Anna (Naomi Watts) is a midwife in London that finds a diary full of secrets, written in Russian. She takes it to be translated by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man who is as dangerous as he is powerful. Anna also meets Semyon’s driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), and soon becomes entangled in a deadly web of organized crime.
David Cronenberg (“A History of Violence”) made a name for himself through strange and graphic films that challenged supporters and offended detractors. In this film, possibly his most straightforward, he drives the film at a subdued hum, only to shatter it with quick bursts of brutality. But while violence meant something in his previous films, here it seems like Cronenberg grew tired of scenes without action and disregarded the story’s tone.
The ending is particularly forced. It may work within the film’s context (because of a trite plot twist), but it is so broad and inconclusive that it poisons everything that preceded it. Which is a shame because the tense atmosphere that is created is ultimately betrayed. The film’s strongest point is Mortensen, who exudes a magnetic intensity that dwarfs everything else, including the forgettable auxiliary characters. His performance (and his scene in the bathhouse) is brilliant and should earn an Oscar nomination.
“Eastern Promises” is very similar stylistically to “A History of Violence.” But while that picture had a level of implicit depth rarely realized in film, Cronenberg’s latest is quiet yet plain, leaving little to imagine as it stumbles to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Gabe Habash may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org