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Friday, September 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Shockingly violent, yet affecting "Eastern Promises"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Eastern Promises," with Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Sinéad Cusack, Jerzy Skolimowski. Directed by David Cronenberg, from a screenplay by Steve Knight. 100 minutes. Rated R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language and nudity. Meridian (opens in additional theaters Sept. 21).

Russian-born Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is so icy he puts his cigarette out on his tongue; you can almost hear, in its faint sizzle, a tiny death. In David Cronenberg's chilly, masterful thriller "Eastern Promises," Nikolai is the driver for an Eastern European crime family in London. Though an underling, he's tightly caught up in their world: detachedly blow-drying the skin of a corpse, or snipping off its fingers. His slicked-back hair is motionless; his scar sneers above his lip. Mortensen gives him a remote quality; this man isn't quite connecting to his surroundings but languidly floating just above them, registering horrors with a cool nod.

It's a perfectly controlled, remarkable performance, miles away from the regular-guy-with-a-secret Mortensen played in his previous collaboration with Cronenberg, the similarly themed "A History of Violence." Set in a wet, desolate London (until an epilogue scene bathed in sunlight, you wonder how anything could thrive here), "Eastern Promises" tells of Nikolai's unexpected involvement with an outsider. Anna (Naomi Watts), a nurse in a maternity ward, is horrified by the death of a pregnant immigrant teen after the birth of her child. Setting out to translate the young woman's Russian diary, Anna (who is half-Russian, on her father's side) is slowly drawn into unexpected darkness: The girl, it turns out, was connected to Nikolai's employers.

Working from an intelligent script by Steve Knight (who also explored London's underworld in "Dirty Pretty Things"), Cronenberg has cast the film well, with each character adding shading. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the head of the crime family, presents himself to the world as a courtly restaurant owner; he charms Anna, but with just the tiniest hint of menace. Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's dangerously self-important son, is wound so tightly you lean away from him, fearful that he might snap at any moment. Helen (Sinéad Cusack), Anna's widowed mother, is faded and fearful. Long ago, she married a Russian; it seems to have been her one act of defiance in an otherwise timid life. And Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), Anna's Russian uncle, seems brutish and unlikable — until we realize that the actor, slyly, has won us over without us even noticing.

"Eastern Promises" will be talked about for its violent sequences, and they are shocking; particularly a lengthy, gory battle in a steam room, after which the metallic chime of a knife's bloody path seems to hang in the air. But behind the blood and gore lies an affecting character study; of two people from different worlds who come together, each providing the other a glimpse of another life. By its end, as we see the cycle of crime and darkness continued, the film is unexpectedly exhilarating. There is, here, a history of violence — and of goodness.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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