This film's casting of a German, a Frenchman, and a Danish-American who grew up in Latin America as Russian mobsters is indeed a unique circumstance (considering my language interests, I could not have found a better combination) – a circumstance, mind you, that cloaks a basic premise not to be revealed on these pages. The secret of Eastern Promises can easily be determined from the intergalactic weapon known as Google albeit tempered by the caveat that, without such subterfuge, this film would function in ostensibly the same manner. Surely some of the characters' actions and words would be viewed in a different light; but the story is one of immersion in a subculture that does not really permit coming up for air. For that reason throughout the film, mysterious glances are exchanged that suggest other secrets, other lives, other motives. Somehow we are fascinated by this disgusting lot, if only because they seem to exist in a world very much apart, and the whole story is governed, I readily believe, by two distinct notions of historical truth. The first concerns the criminal world as it is privately depicted; the second involves the private world as it is discussed in the context of organized crime. The intersection of these two perceptions – however wrong or right they may be – is a bold step that requires little plot or schematics. All such a project needs, in fact, is for the audience to identify two broad themes in the film, much like a painting in two wholly different colors, that at the same time are smelted into one distinct hue. And once smelted, the themes become even more transparent.
Our introduction to this hellish realm warns us that we are not dealing with the Romanticized modern westerns made most famous by this film. The opening scene takes place in a barber shop in London called Azim's where a young, well-heeled Russian is having, unbeknownst to him, his very last shave. The next scene in a Muslim-owned convenience store features a very pregnant teenage girl, also Russian, dripping blood and barefoot. As she is rushed to the emergency room and the care of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), viewers who have read nothing about the film may suspect that we are headed towards another tale of Muslim-Russian animosity (this suggestion is, however, only the film's first red herring and it boasts a whole tinful). The pregnant girl Tatiana dies in childbirth, but her baby girl survives and is unofficially adopted by Anna who also unofficially adopts the teenager's conveniently explicit diary; the problem, of course, is that the entire diary is in Russian. Despite being of Russian provenance and living with her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and very volatile uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), Anna has a paltry command of her forefathers' native tongue. Her uncle would gladly translate it for her if he didn't think that it should be placed unread in Tatiana's coffin ("bury her secrets with her body," he bellows). That leaves her with the diary's one English-language segment, a business card to a Russian restaurant owned by an older gentleman by the name of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
We have already seen Semyon and he is not always a gentleman, but no matter. We have also already seen two ruffians who have intimate dealings with Semyon, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and Semyon's "chauffeur" Nikolai Luzhin (a fabulous Viggo Mortensen). Anna notices Nikolai when he, leaning ever so casually against a street lamp, attempts a pickup line about why she would maintain such an antiquated Russian scooter ("Sentimental value?" he says, "I've heard of that"). To her credit as a woman of good instinct, she wants nothing to do with such a lowlife; but to her severe discredit she interprets Semyon as somehow unattached to the odd form of commerce trafficked off restaurant property – which makes this a fine time for an aside. I mentioned earlier that Eastern Promises runs on two principles that both intersect and solidify into distinct entities, and the first has to do with Russia's most notorious criminal network. I cannot possibly pretend to know details of the true inner workings of vory v zakone, and the Slavist who claims otherwise is either a fraud or not quite what he appears to be. Some say that the thieves do not observe any code except profit and pleasure; others deem the whole structure the inflated hype of legend; still others admit to the group's significance from the Brezhnev through the Yeltsin era, influence and power that have now waned. Whatever the case, bandits, killers, and crooks share the very consistent habit of promulgating a strict set of rules then violating them whenever emotion or advantage dictates that they do so. Kirill in particular evinces a form of paranoid psychopathy that almost compromises the serene confidence with which Nikolai handles all his tasks – most of which, it should be said, have nothing to do with driving. So when Semyon explains his haggard appearance to Anna by confessing that, “last night I broke my rules and had some vodka,” we sense that the rules exist more as a challenge than a restriction – and in this respect Semyon is certainly a gambling man.
But it is the second and more controversial principle that distinguishes Eastern Promises from all other gangster movies ever made. The premise, divulged in interviews by the director, addresses the question of sexuality with a frankness that would have been impossible even thirty years ago in mainstream cinema. Evidence of this approach will be visible on your screen for seven steamy minutes in what will likely become one of the most mentioned fight scenes in film history, but there is much more to the homoerotic underpinnings than what meets our jaded eyes. Kirill wonders about Nikolai's sexuality, which Nikolai proves to him in a grunting display of indifference with one of the lovelier goods being trafficked, and Nikolai reports Kirill's sexual preference directly to his father. Tatiana's diary also has a few choice words about an ordeal that again implies we are watching somewhat of a pantomime – appropriately, I suppose, given the multiple games afoot. And how does Anna figure into this nasty web of lies? The diary and baby Anna saves become the things she never had – a Russian childhood and, as a few lines of dialogue betray, a successful pregnancy; the journal and infant also conspire to steer our plot to its logical conclusion. Anna was not metaphorically "buried in a coal mining town" like all of Tatiana's family, but has enjoyed all the privileges of legal immigration, which probably ignites in her good heart more than a little guilt. Not that guilt really gets you anywhere in London.