One thing's for certain about Eastern Promises - it won't have the 2012 Olympic Committee knocking on the doors of writer Steve Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) or director David Cronenberg. London, for this inspired pairing, is a drizzling hell-hole where Russian mobsters slit throats, abuse prostitutes and even wee on graves outside Chelsea matches. London gangland thrillers may be ten-a-penny nowadays, but this is a pacey, atmospheric take on the genre, delivered with a creepy Cronenberg twist.
When a young Russian girl dies during childbirth, midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) sets out to uncover the girl's mysterious origins. The girl's diary leads Anna, herself of Russian descent, to the lavish Trans-Siberia restaurant, a front for the unspeakably brutal Vory Z Zakone brotherhood. It's a great opportunity for the international cast to ham up their con-veen-sing roosh-ee-an accents, but Viggo Mortensen goes beyond that with a career-best performance as driver-cum-fixer Nikolai Luzhin. Barely recognisable, Mortensen has gotten so deeply under his character's heavily-tattooed skin that every verbal tic and facial expression is completely convincing. He also sets a new gold standard for, er, nude fight sequences during the technically dazzling bathhouse scene, which is so bloody that audience members in the first few rows should really be handed plastic smocks on their way in.
"NOT PERFECT, BUT AN INSTANT CULT CLASSIC"
Not for the squeamish, then, and not perfect either. Eastern Promises lacks the fully-fleshed domestic realism of Cronenberg's previous stab (or should that be gouge?) at the mainstream, his masterpiece A History Of Violence. Anna's more of a preachy moral touchstone than a real character, and the screenplay ties up too many loose ends in the closing half hour, removing a lot (though not all) of Nickolai's sinister ambiguity. But thanks to the mood, the murkiness and Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises is an instant cult classic.
Eastern Promises is out in the UK on 26th October 2007.