David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) is a dark, grim melodrama about Russian émigrés in London. An emigrant family apparently associated with the Russian mafia operates in London. A fourteen-year old prostitute linked to the family hemorrhages to death in a hospital emergency room. A midwife tries to identify the woman so that she can find someone to raise her infant child. One discovery leads to another. The midwife discovers the girl's diary, written in Russian, and asks her uncle, a former KGB agent, to translate it. As he does, she at first suspects that the girl was raped and abused by the son of patriarch of the Russian family. Later she discovers that the patriarch himself raped the girl and fathered her child and then allowed her to be brutally abused.
The two main characters in the film are the midwife Anna, played by Naomi Watts, and the driver for the family, Nikolai, played by Viggo Mortensen. He turns out to be an undercover agent who had infiltrated and been accepted into the family. He is excellent in his part—which is very unlike his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films or like the role he played for Cronenberg in A History of Violence. Mortensen's acting is the single most impressive element in the film. Also effective is the father of the Russian émigrés, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, whom we've seen previously in such films as Shine. He is fine as a benign and avuncular old man who turns out to have a deeply malevolent dark side.
A point of interest in the film is how the Russian mafia family continues to operate and maintain its basic structure and principles while it appears to assimilate into London society. It continues to commit acts of cruelty—murder, rape, drug smuggling, prostitution of young girls, various acts of brutality—in the middle of one of the world's most supposedly civilized cities.
Anna's intrusion into the world of the Russian émigrés seems headed for no good end. Her good intentions place her in potential danger at the hands of a cruel and violent group of people whom she can barely begin to understand. Only because of the intervention of Nikolai do things for her and her family come to a positive conclusion. Nikolai's intrusion does not fit smoothly into the dark and forbidding texture of the film. It seems a faulty and contrived intervention.
This is a well acted and effectively made film. But there's not much depth beneath the surface, despite the fact that Eastern Promises is in part about how deceptive surfaces can be. Others have had much stronger and more positive reactions to the film, and I may have misunderstood or misperceived it.