Written by Steve Knight, who was Oscar nominated for his script for Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises ostensibly focuses on a powerful Russian family, whose criminal behaviour is hidden beneath a veneer of respectability - head of the family Semyan (Armin Meuller-Stahl)runs the classy Trans-Siberian restaurant, and the threat to its impregnability from Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who's caring for the baby of a dead woman who has more links to this family than meets the eye, as becomes apparent through the translation of her diary, which implicates the family in much illegal activity. Torn between the family and Anna is Nikolai (Mortensen), the emotionally aloof driver who is drawn to Anna upon their first meeting, and thus his loyalty to the family becomes tested when the truth of what happened to the girl becomes known.
Nikolai is an intriguing individual - his past is dubious; his tattoos (which reveal his life story) mark him as a thief who spent years and prison, his relationship with Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon's son has a homosexual implication to it (though it's more likely that Kirill, denounced by a later murdered Chechen as a homosexual, is in love with Nikolai, who in turn exploits this attraction, most notably at the film's climax) - we learn nothing about his character, but as a detective claims: tattoos reveal your life story, despite Nikolai's cool and calm exterior.
As already stated, the violence in Eastern Promises is brutal. In the opening scene, a man has his throat slit in a barber's (and the man who carried this murder out is murdered in exactly the same way). The public bath house scenes are as graphically shocking as anything seen recently, as two Chechens avenging the death of their brother take on an unarmed Nikolai (impersonating Kirill, their real target). It's an exceptionally well choreographed piece of work that reportedly took a week to film, but you have to wince your way through it (there is one exceptionally horrible moment in this scene).
British crime films have never really considered organised crime to be undertaken by immigrant populations, so what are Knight's aims with his script? Is he suggesting that the sudden influx of Russian money into London is earned illegally or immorally (whether that be through profiting from the privatisation of industry in Yeltsin's Russia in the 90s or through organised crime once here)? Is there any relevance to one character going to see a Chelsea match (Abramovich's success being the result of the 90s privatisation)? Certainly Knight considers the importance of the Russian community to London - the equal of Italian criminal families in the United States perhaps?
Many have stated that the success of the film relies on Mortensen's staggering performance, which he methodically prepared for in true method style - immersing himself in Russian criminal culture for several weeks, and it's certainly the case that he looks and acts the part, perhaps in contrast to Cassel's more hammy performance. Through his collaborations with Cronenberg, Mortensen has established his profile as a serious actor post-Lord of the Rings. Actress of the moment Watts is also excellent (I seem to be watching numerous films she's appeared in, after years of barely seeing her in anything). Certainly impressive though you'll need a strong stomach, but that's par for the course with Cronenberg, right?