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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.