Eastern Promises


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Eastern Promises, a David Cronenberg film about the Russian mob in London, manages to accomplish something nearly impossible: it starts with a completely implausible detail, then weaves its web so carefully that it traps the viewer inside and makes him forget that he didn't believe the premise to begin with.

A Russian prostitute, only fourteen years old and gravid with child, dies in a London hospital. She had been physically abused and was a heroin addict, but the medicos manage to save a healthy baby from her womb. The compassionate midwife, who lost a baby of her own, impulsively decided to steal the dead woman's diary and to find the family of the infant.

So far so good. Maybe it's a bit far-fetched that the girl was carrying around her diary, but sometimes a plot requires a little jump start, and we can imagine certain circumstances which might have provoked her to run away, diary in hand. What we cannot imagine is what happens next. Inside the girl's diary is a business card from a Russian restaurant. In her quest for the prostitute's family, the naive midwife takes the diary to the restaurant, and eventually agrees to let the kindly owner translate it for her.

Now, I'm no expert on the underworld, but I have heard a thing or two about forced prostitution, and I know that about the only place that business card could lead her is to the person or persons who kidnapped the girl and caused the injuries that killed her. If I were a simple London midwife from a middle class family, I would not want to have any dealings with those people, especially since the diary might provide some kind of evidence against desperate men who would do anything to destroy it and silence anyone who knew of its contents. The midwife not only allows the restaurant owner to read the diary, but also tells him her real name and blabs that her Russian-speaking uncle has read parts of it.


It seems to me that anyone in her position would be cautious enough (1) to get the diary translated by somebody who could not be connected to the many crimes implied by the prostitute's fate; (2) not to reveal her own identity to anyone connected to the dead prostitute; (3) to inform Scotland Yard at some point. If not from the beginning, then certainly when she knew what was in the diary. If she employs no other caution, she should at least be smart enough not to let anyone at the restaurant know who she really is. The midwife's actions are just too naive and too reckless to be credible. I can't imagine anyone putting herself into the position that this woman assumes.

One more detail stretches our credulity to the breaking point. Why did the mobsters let the child prostitute carry her baby to full term? A pretty and shapely young girl has great economic value to them, but they can't get much value out of a mother-to-be in her eighth month. Furthermore, a baby is living DNA evidence. Since the mother is obviously underage, the baby's existence is absolute legal proof that somebody committed statutory rape, even if forced congress cannot be proved, and the baby's DNA is irrefutable evidence of just who that somebody is. One has to think that the mobsters would force the girl into an abortion, as they forced her into everything else.

The gentlemanly restaurateur, needless to say, actually turns out to be the ruthless local Don Corleonov, as is probably known to everyone in London except the midwife. I guess most people could figure it out from the name of the restaurant, The Mob's False Front, and the tattooed, heavy-set men who are always standing at the doorway with their arms crossed. If not, then I suppose they'd figure it out from the sign which offers a "25% mobster discount." The mob boss realizes even before reading the diary that it must include incriminating information about him and his family. He also realizes that he must eliminate the uncle who has read it.

At this point, the other two main characters enter the picture. The restaurateur has a hotheaded and violent son who is also weak and feckless, making him both Sonny and Fredo Corleone in one body. The son's lieutenant is hard-nosed, manipulative, diplomatic, soft-spoken and smart. Although tough as nails, he's even compassionate on occasion. It is obvious that he, not the mobster's biological son, is the Michael Corleone of the family. The son and the lieutenant get involved in the mobster's plan to eliminate the diary and the trail of evidence it creates.

The film succeeds in several ways.

First, the plot has enough surprises that the film could work on that basis alone. The audience is drawn in by wondering how the midwife and her family can survive, by curiosity about the mysterious lieutenant, and by the uncertain identity of the baby's father. Adding even more onions to the plot stew, director David Cronenberg adds a sub-plot about the battles between the Russian family and some rival Turks and Chechens. The sub-plot is not directly related to the plot about the baby, but is absolutely necessary to establish the relationships among the three main Russian mobsters, and includes some twists of its own.

Second, the film is rich in details of characterization and atmosphere. It provides a well-researched look inside the ritualized world of Russian mobsters, focusing especially on the importance of their tattoos. Within that context, it also paints its three main characters in great detail and with complexity. The hothead brother, played by Vincent Cassell, may be vicious and deplorable, but he also exhibits tenderness for a child and great love for his lieutenant. In fact, he loves his lieutenant a bit too much, if you catch my drift. There is a strong indication that his savagery and his brutal womanizing are overcompensation for a nature which is inherently not tough enough for the mob. It is the other two mobsters who lend the film its most sinister and scheming menace. Armin Mueller-Stahl, as the king, and Viggo Mortensen, as the man who would be king, are the types of men who keep their counsel, revealing no more of themselves than is absolutely required. Their games are cerebral, and their insidious threats are masked by ostensible civility. Unlike the Cassell character, they do not walk around with a metaphorical flashing sign which reads "I'm violent," and they are therefore more dangerous to deal with and more difficult to avoid.

Third, the film offers a taste of Cronenberg shock therapy. These men do not carry guns. They like their killing to be personal. They kill with linoleum knives and box cutters, the sorts of weapons that can cause agonizing fatal injuries but can also be justified to policemen. And they attack when a man is most vulnerable: in a barber chair, or naked in steam room. After an unexpected betrayal, Viggo Mortensen has one fight scene in which he is completely naked and unarmed, fighting against two fully-dressed, knife-wielding men. The scene is a masterful piece of cinema because it so powerfully conveys Viggo's vulnerability, gets the audience rooting for him as an impossible underdog, and demonstrates just what a tough cookie he is. Imagine Sonny Corleone walking away from the toll booth incident, and you'll know what I mean. Because the scene is so graphic and because Viggo is a naked superstar, people will be discussing the choreography of this fight for years to come, as we still talk today of the famous nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love. In Viggo's struggle, as in the Reed/Bates battle, there is no homosexuality involved, and I am not one who enjoys navigating the uncertain currents of subtext, but one simply cannot ignore the subtext when a naked man is being penetrated with a curved knife, particularly when that naked man (Viggo) is obviously the real love interest of his closeted homosexual buddy (Cassell).

There are, in fact, so many interesting things going on in this film that the audience completely forgets the implausible gimmicks that led the midwife to the mobsters in the first place. We just have to accept that premise as we have to accept any fantasy premise like the Matrix. Once that premise is accepted, the script carries us along and makes us surrender our initial incredulity, so that we forget it started as a far-fetched fantasy concept and come to accept it as the grim everyday reality of the London underworld. That's the magic of good filmmaking.

I have never been a great fan of David Cronenberg. I think his films are OK, but I don't understand the passion of his most rabid fans. Having said that, and having duly considered the competitive field, I would support this film as a Best Picture nominee. (Well, unless there are five really great films waiting to surprise us in December.) It's a good story with vivid characters, original insight into an unexplored subculture, and a tremendous visceral punch. I would also support acting nominations for Armin Mueller-Stahl in his best role since Shine, and Viggo Mortensen, who really went the extra mile to create this character. In fact, Viggo did so much research on Russian tattoos that Cronenberg ended up re-writing the script to incorporate the tattoos as important elements of plot and atmosphere.


* widescreen anamorphic

* whatever








2 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
4 BBC  (of 5 stars)
89 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
82 Metacritic.com (of 100)










3.4 IMDB summary (of 10)
  Note: the top 1000 voters score the film only 6.5.


B Yahoo Movies













Box Office Mojo. It was a solid mid-level release. It grossed about $17 million domestically and a similar amount overseas. It opened in fifth place despite being in only 1400 theaters, thus earning the #3 spot in the average per theater.












  • Full frontal and rear nudity from Viggo Mortensen
  • Fleeting frontal nudity from Tereza Srbova







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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is top-notch genre fare, but a $17 million gross is short of wide acceptance and makes me hesitant to call it a B-.