Cronenberg and Mortensen deliver in spades with exceptional “Eastern Promises”
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” may not recognize Viggo Mortensen, right, as the mysterious, Russian-born Nikolai. He’s the driver for Kirill (French actor Vincent Cassel), the wastrel son of the head of the London branch of the ruthless Vory v Zakone.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray; 2007; R for strong brutal and bloody violence, some graphic sexuality, language, and nudity; Streaming (only HD) Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube Best extra: “Birthmarks,” a new interview with screenwriter Steven Knight
IN HIS REVIEW of this exceptional David Cronenberg crime thriller, The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote that the Canadian director “is the most provocative, original and consistently excellent North American director of his generation. … Neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run.” Amen to that. Cronenberg made his name with such atypical sci-fi/horror entries as Videodrome” (1983) and “The Fly” (1986), but to his immense credit, he wouldn’t be pigeonholed. In “Secrets and Stories,” one of a handful of features that Kino Lorber picked up for this release, he says he’s “always been drawn to enclosed, hermetically-sealed subcultures,” whether they were ones he created or those like “M. Butterfly” (1993), which was set in the Peking Opera. Cronenberg has also said that, as opposed to the “mechanics” of crime stories, he’s intrigued by “criminality and people who live in a state of perpetual transgression – that is interesting to me." “Eastern Promises” is made to order, and then some. When a hemorrhaging, 14-year-old, Russian prostitute dies in childbirth at a London hospital, a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts, “21 Grams,” 2003) takes her diary, hoping to learn who the girl is and protect her surviving daughter. Though Anna is part-Russian, she can’t translate the diary. Instead, she asks her uncle, Stepan (the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), who warns her not to get involved. Anna, though, still feels the pain of a miscarriage and is determined to find the infant’s family.
(1) In the opening scene, barber Azim (Mina E. Mina), right, gives his nephew Ekrem (Josef Altin) a razor to kill the Russian Soyka (Aleksandar Mikic). (2&3) A dazed, hemorrhaging Russian teenager, Tatiana (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), walks barefoot into a convenience store and asks for help. She’s rushed to a North London hospital but dies during childbirth. (4) Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at the hospital, decides to watch after Tatiana’s daughter.
She ends up at the Trans-Siberian restaurant, which is run by the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl, “Shine,” 1996). He isn’t what he appears to be and neither is the restaurant. It’s the London headquarters of the ruthless criminal fraternity Vory v Zakone (thieves in law). Semyon’s odious son Kirill (Vincent Cassel, “Black Swan,” 2010) is another key player, but the story turns on Viggo Mortensen’s chameleon-like, Oscar-nominated performance as Kirill’s driver, Nikolai. Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” who were surprised when they rushed to see him in 2005’s “A History of Violence,” his first collaboration with Cronenberg (they just completed “Crimes of the Future”), will be floored by “Eastern Promises.” It’s not just the slick hair, dark glasses and Armani suits; Mortensen dives so deep into the role that he’s almost unrecognizable. It’s when Nikolai, Anna, Semyon and Kirill intersect that lines blur, secrets are revealed, loyalties are questioned and the film shifts gears. Even better, Cronenberg doesn’t answer the questions he raises. Instead, he stays in a scene a few beats longer, letting viewers reach their own conclusion.
(1) Anna discovers the teenager’s diary and gives it to her uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), who lives with Anna and her mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack), to translate. (2&3) A business card in the diary leads Anna to the Trans-Siberian restaurant, where she’s greeted by Kirill and Nikolai. (4) Anna meets the grandfatherly Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who shows two young girls how to play the violin for the restaurant’s Christmas dinner.
Focus Features/Kino Lorber’s new 4K master was struck from the original 35mm camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio), and the upgrade from its 2007 2K master is obvious on both the 4K and enclosed Blu-ray disc. Overall clarity is first-rate, from the tight close-ups and wide shots of London, to the intricate tattoos that trace Nikolai’s life story. A good, consistent dose of natural film grain gives the movie that TRUE cinematic look.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who first worked with Cronenberg on “Dead Ringers” (1988), and whose other credits include “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Immortal Beloved” (1994), supervised the remastering, including the HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading. Not only are the contrast and color toning more expansive, the highlight and mid-tone controls are superb and there’s detail to spare in the deep, dark shadows without blocked-up blacks. A triple-layer 100-gigabit disc was used, giving the visuals the highest possible bitrate – 80 megabits per second.
The original uncompressed, six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, recycled from the older Blu-ray, delivers a strong frontal soundstage that serves the hushed, dialogue-driven storyline. Effects and music cues from composer Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy) are nicely balanced in the front and rear speakers.
(1-3) Azim wants Kirill and Nikolai to remove Soyka’s body from his freezer. They do, and dump it in the Thames. (4&5) Anna is heartbroken for the baby girl, whom she names Christine.
EXTRAS Put Knight’s interview at the top of your list. He had finished his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002) when BBC Films asked about another collaboration. “Eastern Promises’ ” starting point was an earlier visit to a Russian cigar bar in New York and Knight’s conversation with its amiable, well-read owner. It’s when “his people” started arriving – men in black leather coats and women in furs – that Knight realized he was a gangster. “The Russian mafia is totally different from the Italian. There’s some lyrical about it and something sort of tragic,” he says. “I wanted to write a story that encompassed that.” When he was done, he met Cronenberg in Toronto, where they had booked a room for three days to go over the script. They ended up meeting for just two hours. “There was very little redrafting. David has a particular mood in what he does. It’s reality knocked on edge a little bit.”
(1) Semyon and Nikolai have a discussion about the reckless Kirill. (2) Even though he puts himself at risk, Stepan cannot hide his dislike for Nikolai. (3) Anna gives the diary to Nikolai, who later hands it to Semyon. (4&5) Hoping to find Christine’s family, Anna continues to search for answers to the life of Tatiana. Nikolai has become her guardian angel.
“Two Guys Walk into a Bath House,” about the movie’s most-discussed sequence, a graphic fight between Nikolai and two Chechen hitmen, is another must-see. Cronenberg says he and production designer Carol Spier found a bath house in London they liked, so they built their own. The idea was to create spaces that were interconnected so the action could flow rather than getting stuck a corner. Cronenberg adds that Mortensen’s willingness to do the scene nude “freed me up instead of worrying about not showing too much. It adds so much because of Viggo’s vulnerability in the movie. You can really identify with that.” Other features – except for “Birthmarks,” all are carryovers – include “Marked for Life” and “Watts on Wheels,” and trailers. “My desire always is to make a complex, textured film that you can see many times and will stay with you and not be a consumer item that’s gone two hours after you see it,” Cronenberg says in “Secrets and Stories.” As noted, “Eastern Promises” is made to order, and then some. Craig Shapiro and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1)Nikolai’s tattoos tell his life story as he’s questioned before becoming a member of the Vory v Zakone. (2) In the movie’s most-discussed sequence, Nikolai is attacked by Chechen hitmen in a London bathhouse. (3&4) Anna watches over him as he recovers. They later say goodbye after rescuing Christine. (5) As the movie ends, Nikolai is at a crossroads.