Eastern Promises

Okay, we have ALL heard about the fight scene in the steam bath in which Viggo Mortensen ("Hidalgo" and "Witness") is completely nude...well there ARE some tattoos... Talk about "raw" courage...

That particular scene notwithstanding, this is an interesting movie about a subculture of a subculture, the Russian Mafia in London. Director David Cronenburg ("The Dead Zone" and "M Butterfly") has collaborated with Mortensen before in "A History of Violence," so neither of them is known for being timorous about violence, homosexuality or blood. This movie offers all three...although the homosexuality is strictly between the lines, never overt.

I was, however, surprised at how involving the story was: Naomi Watts ("Plots With a View," "King Kong" - 2005 and "Mulholland Drive") plays a midwife at a North London hospital. She has recently broken up with her boyfriend and has suffered a miscarriage, so she has moved back home with her mother and her uncle for some time to heal. She delivers a baby for a 14-year-old girl who dies giving birth. A diary written in Russian is found on her corpse. Naomi takes it home and when the Russian uncle translates the diary it is clear the girl had been duped into leaving her village in Russia and was held against her will in a house of prostitution in London. The diary has the potential to alert the police, so the criminals want it BADLY. On the other hand, Naomi is struggling with the temptation to keep her mouth shut and simply adopt the baby girl.

We are treated to the workings of the Russian Mafia with its own code of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood; the London branch is headed by Semyon, effectively portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl ("The Music Box" and "The Story of an African Farm"), who shows us a kindly paterfamilias that loves his family, runs a thriving restaurant and is a cold-blooded, ruthless capo, as well. His oldest son, Kirill, is played by Vincent Cassel ("Casino Royale" - uncredited, "Birthday Girl" and "Ocean's 12 & 13") who effectively plays a loose cannon, combining drunkenness and arrogance in his maltreatment all of his underlings, which include Mortensen, who serves as his private driver and flunky.

With a plot twist here and there, a fascinating DVD extra about the etiquette of prison tattoos and some insight into the immigration of Russians into England, it was enough to keep me interested all the way through. (Even the extras have closed captions! Whew!)

I checked the DVD out of the Seattle Public Library, so I know it is available on the rental lists. If you aren't too squeamish, you WILL like this film.