Like him or hate him, David Cronenberg is extremely talented and a truly original artist. I have had my rocky moments with Cronenberg particularly with his early work. His hermetically sealed fantasy worlds don't always work for me. Intrigued by his controversial 1996 film Crash I was just barely able to get through it because I was pregnant with J and was very sensitive about images of blood and gore (I have overcome this aversion somewhat).
Eastern Promises, which I tried to see at TIFF last year to no avail, features two of my favourite actors: Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. The scene opens with pregnant 14 year old Tatiana, a junkie and prostitute, trapped into slave labour by the Russian mafia, hemorrhaging to death in a pharmacy.
Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife of Russian/British heritage, working at a London hospital, delivers a baby girl from the unconscious Tatiana. Anna is immediately drawn to the child possibly because of her miscarriage some time before. Tatiana dies during childbirth with no identification other than her diary which is written in Russian and holds a business card for a restaurant known as the Trans-Siberian which is run by a dignified old Russian named Semyon (the German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Semyon is a sophisticated, elegant man who loves his grandchildren, teaches them the violin as well as serving gorgeous, sumptuous meals for his upscale Russian patrons. But this serves as a facade for his real business which is the trafficking of underage prostitutes from Russia. He serves as a sort of don in the Russian mafia known as vor v zakone (literally meaning Thief-in-Law).
Searching for an address to notify Tatiana's family of the birth of the little girl, Anna seeks Semyon out to determine if he knows Tatiana and she explains that she has the diary. Shrewdly, he offers to translate it for her and asks her to drop it off. Semyon quickly realizes that both he and his son Kiril (French actor Vincent Cassel), a violent, and likely closeted, psychopath are both implicated in the rape of the underage Tatiana.
Semyon admits to her that the diary has damaging information about his son Kiril. He offers to find the address of the baby's mother's family in Russia in exchange for the original diary, while implying that the baby may be harmed if Anna does not provide the diary.
Through her Russian-born Uncle Stepan's reading of the diary, Anna also learns that Tatiana was lured to London with promises of a job singing, forced into prostitution, "broken in" or raped by Semyon and then injected with heroin.
Anna realizes that Semyon must be the father of the baby girl whom she has now named Christine.
Anna also meets Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), Kiril's "driver" who is also referred to as an "undertaker" for his role in cutting off the fingers and removing the teeth of a fellow vor who has been assassinated for spreading "lies" about Kiril, specifically that he is a drunk and a queer. Nikolai helps Kiril dispose of the body in the River Thames.
Mortensen is phenomenal in this film ... smoothly capturing the look, stance, hair, clothing, criminal tattoos (more on that later) of a vor even in the subtle way he moves his body, his head. He's utterly convincing.
When Semyon learns that Kiril ordered the murder of the rival Russian vor, he berates Nikolai for not advising him then commands Nikolai to get the original diary from Anna almost as proof of his fidelity. Nikolai reads it and then hands it over to Semyon for burning. Nikolai learns that Anna's uncle is Russian and is also ordered to kill Stepan on the assumption that Stephan knows too much.
Semyon promotes Nikolai to the rank of captain and Nikolai is tattooed with a captain's stars on his chest in an uncomfortable scene where he is cross examined, stripped to his underclothes, by members of the Russian mafia elite who read his tattoos as if they were a police report. Here, and in a later scene, we see the extent and importance of the tattoos which tell a man's complete criminal history: what his crimes were, how many sentences he has served, his rank in the mafia.
Semyon has very specific plans for Nikolai for he is then lured to a bathhouse (apparently a traditional meeting place for vors where a man's tattoos and hence his criminal history is on full display) and that puts him in the path of two Chechen killers who have been told that he is Kiril (i.e. responsible for the death of their fellow vor from an earlier scene).
The ensuing scene is amazing, with a naked, tattooed Mortensen fighting the two fully clothed Chechens armed with knives. After an extremely violent fight, Nikolai stabs and kills the Chechens and is seriously wounded.
While recovering from his wounds, it is soon revealed that Nikolai is an undercover officer with the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service (a successor to the KGB) and is working with the British police. Scotland Yard wants to remove him from the operation for his own safety but he declines and plots to have Semyon eliminated.
To say more (and I think I've said too much already) would ruin the ending. To a certain extent the bad guys are foiled and the good are rewarded but there is a great deal of ambiguity about Nikolai's fate at the end. The last shot is very reminiscent of the final scene of The Godfather.
All is as it should be in Cronenberg's world.