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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » Eastern Promises (HD DVD)
Eastern Promises (HD DVD)
Universal // R // December 23, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted January 20, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Director David Cronenberg, originally known for gory horror films such as Shivers, Scanners, and The Fly, no longer sticks to that field and has garnered a lot of critical and popular acclaim for his recent film A History of Violence.  His latest film, Eastern Promises, is an interesting work that has a subtle and nuanced script and some magnificent performances.  It's only too bad that the plot had to rely on some tired and worn clichés to advance the narrative and mar an otherwise excellent film.  The HD DVD presentation has a gorgeous picture and excellent sound which does the film justice.

Working the late shift one evening just before Christmas, a midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) helps with a pregnant 14-year-old heroin addict who has just been brought into the emergency room.  The baby is saved by an emergency C-Section, but the mother dies.  The only clue as to who she is lies in the diary she was clutching, written in Russian.

When Anna's Russian uncle looks at the diary, he tells his young niece to bury it with the girl and refuses to translate it for her.  Feeling sorry for the motherless infant and being pushed on by a miscarriage of her own, Anna follows the only clue she has to the girl's identity, a card to a Russian restaurant.  The owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), claims not to know the girl but is willing to translate the diary for her.  When Anna brings photocopies, Semyon is a bit upset and wants the original, even showing up unexpectedly at Anna's hospital to request it.   That's because Semyon is a leader of the Russian mob in London, and the dead girl was a prostitute that he tricked into coming to England with promises of a singing career.

In Anna's dealings with Semyon, she keeps on bumping into his drunken, nearly out of control son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and the boy's driver and lackey Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen).  Nikolai is quiet, tall, and handsome and Anna is oddly attracted to him.  When she learns just who and what Semyon is, she gives the diary to Nikolai.  She reads the translation that her uncle reluctantly provided however, and after understanding what the poor girl went through and who the father of the baby is, she can't just let it go.

This film, though filled with Cronenberg's trademark blood and violence, is surprisingly subtle.  Certain plot points that go a long way towards explaining people's motivations are given in quick throwaway lines (such as Anna's miscarriage) and the director expects his audience to pay attention because no one ever sits down and awkwardly explains just what's going on.

The multilayered script weaves the two plots (the one with Anna and a second one involving another mobster who is murdered on Kirill's orders) together nicely and illustrates each character's motivations without ever becoming heavy handed.  Something that Hollywood has an exceedingly hard time doing.

The fact that this script is so good only magnifies the flaws that it contains.  It's aggravating that the plot relies on clichéd events that would fit right in with a Hollywood action flick.  Anna falls in love with Nikolai and deep down knows that she can trust his because he gave her a ride home in the rain.  Semyon's a tough and ruthless leader, but his son an heir to his criminal empire is a weak idiot who relies on his intelligent underling to keep him out of trouble.  How many times have we seen that before?  The worst offense is when Anna goes to the headquarters of the Russian mob and confronts Kirill and Nikolai and reveals the identity of the baby's father.  What was she hoping to do?  In real life they probably would have killed her, and the only reason this scene occurs is that the movie would be over otherwise.  While events like this cause me to roll my eyes in lesser films, they're upsetting in a quality movie.

Even with these flaws, the acting is superb.   Viggo Mortensen has such screen presence in this movie that whenever he's on the screen you can't help but be intrigued.  He plays the role so well that the revelation near the end doesn't seem cheap and forced.  Armin Mueller-Stahl was also outstanding as the congenial older man who wants to help Anna and turns out to be a vicious mobster.  He plays his part so coolly and with such restraint that I wouldn't be surprised to see him nominated for an Oscar.  Naomi Watts is a very good actress, and she does fine in this role, but her male counterparts overshadow her performance.

The HD DVD Disc:


This is a combo disc with the SD DVD on one side and the HD DVD version on the other.  The comments on the audio and visual quality refer to the HD DVD version only.

Video:

The movie is presented with a 1080p VC-1 encoded 1.85:1 image that looks fantastic.  This isn't a vibrant colorful film, but it looks great none the less.  The dark color palate is reproduces with loving care so that the skin tones look natural in both bright light and in dark shadows.  A lot of the movie takes place in poorly lit rooms or at night and even in these scenes the details are strong and the image very sharp.  The blacks are solid and even without being crushed and the few brightly lit sequences don't look washed out or over exposed.

On the digital side, things are equally impressive.  There are no spots or dirt on the impeccable print, and aliasing, banding, blocking and other common video defects are totally absent.

I wasn't expecting a film about the Russian mob in London to look so spectacular.  This disc really brings the seedy side of London to life and adds a lot to the viewing experience.

Audio:

This film comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track as well as a Dolby Digital Plus track.  The TrueHD track sounded great, and was all I was expecting and more.  There are only a few instances of really aggressive surround sound, so this isn't a disc that will instantly impress your friends, but if they take the time to watch the whole film they discover a top-notch audio track.  The problem I have with a lot of action films is that while the explosions and laser battles sound amazing, the audio often collapses into a stereo mix for the rest of the film.  This disc illustrates that even a quiet film can make good use of the entire sound stage and have impressive qualities.  A lot of time went into the mixing of this film and it shows.  The dialog has very good directionality and if you close your eyes you could easily tell where people are standing.  What's better is that the quiet, whispered lines are easy to discern and never get lost in the ambient noise.  The rears are used mainly to create an atmosphere with some street sounds and background noise effectively thrown behind the viewers.  This is a very good sounding disc that does the film justice.

Extras:

I was a little surprised at the anemic extras included on the disc.  For a film that got such raves from the critics I was expecting a bit more.  First off is Secrets and Stories, a fairly bland featurette that runs a tad over ten minute.  In this the cast and crew give their opinions of forced prostitution (they are against it!) and the Russian mob in London.  While the writer had the most interesting comments, most of the actors were just relating what occurs in the film.  The only other bonus feature is a 7-minute short Marked for Life which looks at the tattoos used in the movie.

Final Thoughts:

Eastern Promises is a good film that could have been great.  The restrained and interesting film is only marred by some overused clichés that are employed to move the plot along.  This HD DVD version has an impeccable picture and an excellent soundtrack that really brings the film to life. Recommended.

Note: The images in this review are not from the HD DVD and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.
 

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