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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007 10:47 am

Below the surface

Nothing is quite what it seems in Eastern Promises

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Untitled Document In many ways, David Cronenberg’s latest feature, Eastern Promises, is a variation on the theme last explored in his A History of Violence. Nothing is quite what it seems — and once the truth is revealed about its characters’ true lives and intentions, the damage affects not only those who have been exposed but more tragically, those who have done the unmasking. London is the locale and the Russian Mafia is the subject as Anna (the plucky Naomi Watts), a hospital midwife, has the misfortune of delivering the child of a 14-year-old Jane Doe. Mom dies, but the child lives. Left with the young girl’s diary, written in Russian, Anna is determined to find answers. She is able to decipher that there’s a connection between the young girl and a seemingly affable old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna makes the mistake of mentioning the diary in his presence and before you know it, there’s trouble. The script by Steven Knight is sharply written, though a bit familiar, and Cronenberg’s crisp pacing prevents us from getting bored. However, what makes the film stand out is the filmmaker’s insistence on digging beneath the surface of these characters and his cast’s willingness to follow him. Mueller-Stahl’s grandfatherly appearance seems genuine but once he shows his truly sadistic nature, the shock comes not from witnessing the behavior but from realizing that Semyon can wear both masks with equal ease. Viggo Mortensen, who plays a chauffeur named Nikolai, also is quite good here. A simple vocal inflection, a nod of the head, or a duplicitous smile reveals what his character is thinking. Unlike those with whom he associates, Nikolai recognizes what he has lost — and that he’s a lesser man for it. Mortensen displays the character’s violent side with aplomb but his introspective moments are what stay with you. Much is made in the film of the tattoos that Nikolai has inscribed on his body, each representing a different aspect of his life, all of which when put together supposedly tell you all you need to know about this man. Through Nikolai, Cronenberg reminds us that there’s always more than what meets the eye.
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