Cronenberg's Dark 'Promises' Fulfilled

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Eastern Promises," a chilly character thriller set in the Russian underworld of London, has elements of murder mystery and gangster melodrama. But in director David Cronenberg's hands, it's a search for moral bearing in a dark and desperate world.

Naomi Watts plays Anna Khitrova, a midwife who works in a London hospital. When a newborn girl and a Russian-language diary come into her possession (the baby's drug-addicted teenage mother dies in childbirth on Anna's watch), she's determined to do right by the baby. But her routine diligence turns into a dangerous ordeal when she meets Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Russian restaurant proprietor who seems unusually motivated to translate, and keep, that diary. After uncomfortable run-ins with Semyon's sidekicks, his perpetually besotted son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), his severe, laconic driver, Anna realizes she's dealing with a criminal enterprise.

Cronenberg, director of such memorable chillfests as "Scanners" and "The Fly," and 2005's anti-violence masterpiece, "A History of Violence," uses jarring scenes, such as a throat-cutting execution, to underscore the dangers Anna faces. (The movie's biggest talking point is a fight to the death in a bath house, involving a naked Mortensen confronted by knife-bearing Chechens, that forces the audience into a disconcerting but intimate encounter with violence.) But Cronenberg's deeper purpose is to pull audiences into an affecting, powerful story about right and wrong. That moral struggle isn't just between Anna and the Russian mobsters; it's within the dawning conscience of Nikolai, a mystery character who becomes the dark horse winner of the story.

-- Desson Thomson

Eastern Promises R, 100 minutes Contains brutal violence, nudity and profanity. At the Avalon and Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14.

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