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Release Date(s)2007 (October 14, 2008)
Studio(s)Focus Features (Universal)
Christmas in London. What could be more magical? Especially if you’re hanging out with the Russian Mafia and your host is your creepy Uncle Dave Cronenberg. Yes, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
OK, so maybe Eastern Promises isn’t your traditional holiday fare. But why shouldn’t it be? Our story begins on December 20 as a pregnant, drug-addicted, underage Russian prostitute begins to miscarry in a pharmacy. She dies giving birth to the child, so Anna, the hospital midwife (Naomi Watts), takes her diary and begins looking for clues to next of kin. When her Russian uncle refuses to help translate the diary, she pursues her one lead, a business card for a restaurant owned by Armin Mueller-Stahl. He’s extremely interested in helping to translate the book since it’s evidence tying him and his son (Vincent Cassel) to the Russian Mafia. Meanwhile, Anna keeps running into Nikolai the driver (Viggo Mortensen), a rising star in the organization who alternately helps and gets in the way of Anna’s quest. See? Eastern Promises has everything you could want from a Christmas story. You’ve got your virgin birth (hey, she was a virgin before the rape so that counts). You’ve got your three wise guys. You even have the throat slashings and savage beatings in bath houses that may not have been part of your holiday traditions but were sure a part of mine.
All kidding aside (assuming you think I’m kidding about any of that, which I may or may not be), Eastern Promises is a rock-solid movie. Cronenberg is one of my top five favorite filmmakers but even so, I was surprised at how good this movie is. Mortensen delivers another astonishing performance, following his excellent work in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, disappearing into the role of Nikolai. Anna could be a thankless role, acting mainly as the audience’s eyes and ears in this world, but Watts fleshes her out, making her a believably complex character. Special mention must be made of the screenplay by Steven Knight. Eastern Promises is a lean, muscular movie that doesn’t have a single extraneous moment. Every scene, every line of dialogue, adds to the story and propels it forward. There is nothing here that could or should be cut. Off the top of my head, I doubt that I could think of half a dozen other recent movies that I could say the same for.
Universal has finally brought Eastern Promises to Blu-ray after previous releases on both DVD and HD-DVD. Both image and sound are excellent, with maybe just one or two glitchy moments in the picture. Oddly enough, the Blu-ray boasts more extra features than either of the earlier formats. But don’t go declaring this the definitive release just yet as the new stuff adds up to a grand total of about 90 seconds. Carried over from the previous releases are Secrets and Stories, a too-short making-of featurette, and Marked for Life, which goes into the significance of the tattoos in the film. Both just leave you wanting more.
New stuff is limited to two more featurettes: Two Guys Walk into a Bath House talks (briefly) about the now-legendary fight scene between a very naked Viggo Mortensen and two Russian killers. Even more pathetic is Watts on Wheels, in which Naomi Watts discusses the indignity of having to ride a motorcycle for the first time with the whole world watching for all of 30 seconds. Wow, your co-star went to Russia to hang out with gangsters, did all this research on prison tattoos AND had to get the crap beaten out of him while he was buck naked and you had to actually ride a two-wheeler? How ever did you survive, Ms. Watts? Anyway, Eastern Promises still needs a much better release. Especially confounding is the lack of a commentary from Cronenberg, who has provided a track (and usually a quite interesting one) for virtually every movie he’s made to date.
As much as I’ve enjoyed David Cronenberg’s recent work, I’m dying for him to get back to the typewriter and come up with his own, purely Cronenbergian screenplay from scratch. Until that happens, as long as he continues to make films as rich and compelling as Eastern Promises, it’ll be hard for me to complain too much. S Rozhdestvom, everybody!
- Dr. Adam Jahnke