A child and a mystery, both born in blood

Posted: September 14, 2007

One Christmas morning in London, Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, delivers a baby girl while its mother hemorrhages to death. Inside the departed's handbag is a diary, scribbled in Russian, and a business card for a restaurant called the Trans-Siberian.

Hoping to find the baby's relatives before the tot gets lost to child welfare, Anna calls on the festive eatery where she catches the wary eye of a chauffeur, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), exiting the premises.

Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg's A Christmas Carol. That doesn't mean the Canadian filmmaker of A History of Violence has gone soft. Only that his brutal and melancholy morality tale, a bookend to Violence that reunites him with the wily Mortensen, is a ghost story puddled with blood and self-scrutiny.

Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the Trans-Siberian proprietor, is the courtly, deadly tsar of London's Russian mafia, vory v zakone. Inside his nostalgia-gilded restaurant it's Christmas every day and stroganoff every night - to balalaika music.

While you don't want to see what's in the kitchen freezer or to what nondinner uses the carving knives and cleavers are put, Cronenberg still shows you in blunt, bloody sequences.

As Nikolai, henchman to Semyon and his Fredo Corleone-like son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Mortensen delivers yet another startling performance, stunning in its intensity and cunning in its ambiguity.

Above the nose, the smiling blue eyes and flat-top pompadour suggest Ronald Reagan gallantry. Below, the smirky mouth and chin cleft suggest Kirk Douglas pugnacity.

Is Nikolai loving or lethal? An angel of Death? A life-giving Devil? (That's also the question that haunted the similarly ambiguous Mortensen character in Violence.) Anna, searching for clues about the baby's origins, doesn't know who to trust.

In the film written by Steven Knight, who likewise examined London's newest immigrants in Dirty Pretty Things, Cronenberg depicts a promised land trashed by shattered dreams.

The title is Eastern Promises. But it could be Western Disillusions, for the film is almost anthropological in showing how those who escaped the gulags reconstructed those slave labor camps in their newfound land.

Though this sounds like a downer, Cronenberg invests his parable with Godfather-like tension that finds release in knife fights that will satisfy the most demanding genre aficionados. ("You might want to leave room," Nikolai says at one point, speaking for those like me, here for the storytelling and not the bloodletting.)

You'll be reading a lot about the film's bathhouse scene where Nikolai defends himself against knife-wielding Chechen gangsters. Nikolai, body tattooed with the hieroglyphs of the Russian mob, battles his attackers naked in what has to be the most discomfort-producing sequence in a Cronenberg film since the gynecological probes in Dead Ringers. The violence here is never in the service of spectacle, always of the story.

Anna (the underutilized Watts) acts as the audience surrogate. "I need to know who you are," she demands of Nikolai. The more crucial question, one she never fully asks of the baby she christens Christina, is, "What child is this?"

Eastern Promises *** (out of four stars)

Directed by David Cronenberg. With Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Parent's guide: R (brutal and graphic violence, sexual violence, profanity, childbirth)

Playing at: Ritz Five

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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