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Eastern Promises (4K Ultra HD)
Two years after first collaborating in A History of Violence, Director David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen reteam for this gritty, slow-burn drama about second-generation Russian immigrants and organized crime. Before diving into these collaborations, Cronenberg was best known for body-horror films like Scanners and The Fly; films that explore themes of body transformation, the manifestation of trauma, and the intersection of technology and our personal lives. While no one is accusing Cronenberg of being a director for the masses, his films certainly are always thought provoking and occasionally grotesquely beautiful. Eastern Promises is more subtle than earlier efforts, though it is set in a world where sudden, graphic violence is normalized and frequent.
The story at the heart of Eastern Promises is told nimbly, as the real focus of the film is the way the characters react to events. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a London midwife, finds a diary on the body Tatiana, a teenager who dies in childbirth. Anna finds a card inside the diary that leads her to a restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a powerful boss in the Russian mafia, who offers to help find the girl's family so her baby can be reunited with them. Anna's mother Helen (Sinead Cusack) is hopeful, but her uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), a former KGB officer, warns Anna that the Russian mafia is powerful and that Tatiana was a prostitute. Also in the mix are Semyon's hot-headed son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen), Semyon's driver who primary keeps Kirill out of trouble and cleans up situations that might damage the family.
As the narrative moves forward and dread sets in, it becomes clear that further translation of the diary will tie more characters into a messy fold. Cronenberg does an excellent job portraying a tight, autonomous segment of London; although Eastern Promises is set in a sprawling city, the audience visits only the locations frequented by the characters. The film is also chilling in its suggestion that Semyon, Kirill and company have victimized many, and the trend will likely continue absent some intervening force. For his part, the tattoo-covered Nikolai seems exhausted with the constant killing, sweep-ups and errand running. He sympathizes with Anna, lusts for her, and does his best to steer her away from traps that might result in her departure from the earth. His character also makes some unexpected transformations in the final act, and he begins to question his loyalties.
Although Steven Knight's screenplay makes some questionable decisions when depicting these Russian mobsters turned semi-legitimate businessmen, Eastern Promises, with its uncomfortable interactions and slow-burn dread, works well as blunt entertainment. Cassel is a bit too over the top in his delivery, as if his acts of sexual assault and murder do not speak for themselves. Watts plays her character with quiet determination, and Mueller-Stahl gives Semyon a stoic demeanor that hides many secrets. Mortensen is the star of this show, and absolutely embodies his character. While the messy, full-nude bathhouse fight might be what most people remember about Eastern Promises, Mortensen is most effective in quiet scenes, where a glance or quick line of dialogue is sharply effective. I saw Eastern Promises in a college arthouse theater back in 2007 and did not know quite what to make of it. Fifteen years later, I really enjoy the way Eastern Promises drops in on a story and a lifestyle that is already in motion, and which promises to continue in some strange, violent fashion.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
Kino Lorber really knocked this one out of the park. I was shocked by how beautiful, filmic and deep this 1.85:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision and HDR10 is, and this 4K release offers a healthy upgrade from the previous Blu-ray release. I was immediately struck by the three-dimensional feeling of this presentation and its bold, gorgeously saturated colors. Now, do not think that the HDR pass artificially turns Eastern Promises into some circus-colored spectacle; it simply takes what Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky filmed and presents it in the best possible light. The grain structure, while sometimes heavy, feels natural and consistent throughout the film, and I noticed only a couple of brief instances of ringing or aliasing. Blacks are deep and inky, shadow detail is abundant, and highlights are nicely resolved. Close-ups reveal every detail of characters' faces, tattoos and wardrobe, while wide shots remain crisp and beautifully resolved. Other than a few specks, I noticed no other pressing issues.
This is a quieter film, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is nonetheless impressive, offering excellent ambience and crystal-clear dialogue. The street sounds of London surround viewers and make use of the entire sound field. Conversations are perfectly audible and balanced amid effects and score. The brief pops of violence also incite the surrounds and subwoofer to retaliate to great results. A 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also included, as are English SDH subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the 4K disc with the film in UHD and a Blu-ray disc that includes the film in 1080p plus all the extras. The black 4K case is wrapped in a matte slipcover. Bonus content includes Birthmarks (10:05/HD), a newly shot interview with screenwriter Stephen Knight, in which he discusses Cronenberg, the Russian mafia and shooting in London; Secrets and Stories (10:32/SD), which offers brief cast and crew interviews; Marked for Life (6:42/SD), about the characters' tattoos; Watts on Wheels (0:55/SD), a quick anecdote from the actress; and two Trailers (4:17 total/HD).
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen's second collaboration, Eastern Promises, is a gritty, often uncomfortable dive in the world of the Russian mafia in 1990s London. Mortensen's mafia cleaner steals the show and commands the screen throughout. Kino Lorber's new 4K Ultra HD release offers excellent picture and sound and a few decent extras. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.