Eastern Promises


Eastern Promises

Written by Steven Knight

Directed by David Cronenberg




Naomi Watts

Viggo Mortensen

Vincent Cassel

Armin Mueller-Stahl

Jerzy Skolimowski

Sinead Cusack



Theatrical: Focus Features, BBC Films, Astral Media

Video: Universal Studios Home Entertainment



Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: VC-1

Disc Size: 23.73 GB

Feature Size: 20.60 GB

Bit Rate: 20.46 Mbps

Runtime: 100 minutes

Chapters: 20

Region: All



English DTS-HD MA 5.1

Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

French Dolby Digital 5.1



English SDH, Spanish & French



• Secrets & Stories (10:32)

• Marked for Life: (6:42)

• Two Guys Walk Into a Bath House (1:55)

• Watts on Wheels (0:55)



Amaray Blu-ray case: BRD x 1

Release Date: October 14, 2008

The Movie: 8

Two years after their justly praised History of Violence, director David Cronenberg again teams up with actor Viggo Mortensen. The subject is another exploration of the question of when it is morally acceptable to use violence on a personal level, even in the interests of a greater good. As usual, Cronenberg just asks the questions. He doesn't answer them.

The setting is the Russian mafia as it exists in current day London, specifically as regards prostitution of teenage girls and young women. Naomi Watts plays Anna, the daughter of a Russian emigrant and a midwife at a local hospital. A teenage girl is brought in to her hospital, strung out on heroin and in labor. The girl does not survive the delivery, but she leaves behind a baby girl in surprisingly good health and her diary, written in Russian. Anna finds a business card in the diary that leads her to a local Russian restaurant operated by the gracious and learned Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who admits no knowledge of the dead girl, but offers to translate the diary for Anna in hopes of tracing the baby's relatives. (Anna has recently lost a pregnancy of her own and has therefore taken a special interest in this one's fate before she must turn over the matter to police & Social Services.)


Semyon's son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), is clearly involved in some very bad stuff and is already more than a little out of control. His driver, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), watchful and level-headed, is a calming influence. Nikolai's paths cross with Anna's several times as he warns her to check her anger and keep away from these very bad people, though he, himself, is a cold-blooded part of it.

It is interesting that Cronenberg chose to cast non-Russians for these parts. Mortensen, 47 at the time of filming, a New Yorker born and bred, tends to mumble, but he does so in character, as if to keep Nikolai’s true intentions close to the chest. His body language is, in every way, the poster for this movie – from his tattoos to the subtle way he turns his head – Nikolai is a dangerous man and a force to be reckoned with. More subtle, but no less dangerous, is Semyon, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, 77, an eastern European German Prussian, whom we know from a long list of German and English language credits from the The West Wing (where he played the Israeli Prime Minister) to the 1996 film, Shine, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Then there’s the mercurial Vincent Cassel as the hot-headed Kirill. He, too, has other agenda lurking behind his furtive glances. Kirill would like to be his own man, but in more ways than one he is under his father’s thumb.


Judging by the roles she has taken on since Mulholland Dr., Naomi Watts is perhaps the most intense actress working in film today. Born in England, but raised in Australia after she turned seven, Watts has been working in films and TV since 1986, but wasn’t really discovered as a tour de force actress behind the pretty face until David Lynch cast her as the tormented, split persona of Betty Elms and Diane Selwin in his 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. From then on, Watts has been the go-to actress when passion, spontaneity, intelligence and vulnerability were required in the same role. After The Ring (twice over), 21 Grams and King Kong, the demands of Anna in Eastern Promises, even by a director such as Cronenberg, may seem to us something like a walk for her. All the same, there is no scene where she is on idle. Watch how she reflects her initial suspicion of Semyon. It is so subtle, we can easily believe her reaction is reflexive, rather than considered.


Image: 8/9

Universal’s DVD was pretty good with natural flesh tones and saturated reds, even though edge enhancement is apparent. I think the Blu-ray is what many reviewers would call a "strong" image. Evidently struck from the same master, it is at first blush, much the same, but with almost none of the EE that marred the DVD. But it doesn’t take long for Blu-ray's trademark dimensionality to take hold. By comparison, the SD looks positively flat and dull, yet somehow overly contrasty. There is a wisp of grain to the image that suggest little manipulation. 

One of the more telling scenes is Anna’s first entrance into the Semyon’s restaurant, where the place is teeming with the hubbub of life in the blu-ray. Every detail contributes to the effect of the old world in a new world context. When the camera pauses on the two little girls with their violins in hand, they look like something out of a painting, yet with an eerie tangible realism. Bit rate is only a hair above 20, and while higher would have been nice, it seems to serve well.


Audio & Music: 8/8
David Cronenberg is generally judicious in his audioscapes. Eastern Promises is no exception. Dialogue is always clear. Ambiance is natural and never offered merely for effect. There isn't a great deal of opportunity for enveloping surrounds anyhow, but we get plenty enough of that when a crowd gathers for the football game and during a singalong at the restaurant. The bathhouse scene has just the right ambience, nailing its fight sequence slaps and grunts in the small, echoic space. Howard Shore's music is wonderfully evocative, often in tender counterpoint to the evil below the surface, reminiscent of Schindler's List.



Operations: 8
I've neglected to mention one of the most laudatory things about Universal Blu-rays: the absence of promos and previews. We're at the menu before you can get comfortable in your seat. The menu is laid out like other Universal Blu-rays – very cleverly laid out, indeed. I like the arrows that tell you which way to direct you remote. No U-Control on this one.



Extras: 4
What we don't have is a commentary (nor did we have one on the DVD). Instead, the two featurettes, Secrets & Stories and Marked for Life – already in very high quality 480i are brought over to the Blu-ray, boosted to 1080i. Director David Cronenberg, together with cast and crew discuss, first, the Russian underworld of prostitution in London, and, then more specifically, the history & symbolism of Russian prison tattoos. New to the Blu-ray are two featurettes, totalling hardly three minutes between them, where Cronenberg talks about the bath house scene and an even shorter short bit showing Naomi Watts learning to ride a motorcycle.


Recommendation: 9

Another study of the ethics and practice of violence by the master of the genre: David Cronenberg. Very well done on every level. I liked the film and the performances of Mortensen and Watts (whom I think may be the best film actress of her generation) even better the second around . . . could become a trend. The Blu-ray is an improvement over the already very good standard definition DVD in picture and sound. Strongly Recommended.

Leonard Norwitz                                                                                      Coming Soon on Blu-ray

© LensViews                                                                                  

October 29, 2008                                                                                                    Return to Top



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