All of you obsessive David Cronenberg fans can rejoice, one of his films is finally released in high definition with the release of "Eastern Promises" on HD-DVD Combo format. The Canadian director's filmography is legendary among fans of brilliant and dark cinema. Some of his films include "Naked Lunch", "Videodrome", "EXistenz" and of course "The Dead Zone". With his wildly inventive style and an unflinching and sometimes brutal eye for sex and violence his films are extremely psychological and often profoundly disturbing. With "A History Of Violence" he teamed up with Viggo Mortensen for the first time, and it was a huge success, even being nominated for an Academy Award. This excellent teaming of talent has once again proven to be a huge hit with critics and audiences alike and Mortensen is up this year for Best Actor for his performance in this film.
The story itself is actually fairly straightforward, much like "History Of Violence", the rewards of the experience are all in the details of his brilliant style of directing and his gift for completely immersing us in his dark world. This is a direct crime drama, but in the hands of Cronenberg, nothing is exactly as it seems.
The film takes place in London, although it took me a while to figure this out because it seemed to be in Russia; it turns out it is a part of London occupied by Russian families. Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) plays a midwife who works at a hospital where a very young fourteen year old girl turns up and dies giving birth to a daughter. While trying to find out who the parents of the nameless girl are she stumbles upon a diary written in Russian and a business card to a Russian restaurant.
She hops onto her motorcycle and as she approaches the door to the upper class eatery she encounters two menacing characters for the first time, Nikolai (Mortensen) the driver, and Kirill (Vincent Cassell) who rush past her into the restaurant. After knocking on the door she is met by an older and very powerful seeming man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who invites her in and has food prepared for her after she reveals the purpose of her visit. He seems very interested in the diary and offers to translate it for her if she returns it the following day.
Against the advice of her family she returns and has the diary translated, and what she reads weaves a complex tale of power, betrayal, crime, prostitution and murder. It also becomes obvious that Semyon is the leader of a very sinister and powerful crime family and he prefers his driver Nikolai over his incompetent and savagely violent son to take over as leader of the family after his passing.
Watching Nikolai's brutal and ruthless rise to the top of the Russian crime network is fascinating to say the least, his life of pain is told in his tattoos, two of which he has yet to get before he can enter the realms of the highest ranks. This is an intense, intelligent and extremely powerful performance, and he deserves all of the credit he is currently getting. Watts is also excellent as her character keeps getting deeper and deeper into a vicious world she doesn't belong, her performance is outstanding. This film is a crime drama, but it is also one hundred percent Cronenberg and is just as intense and philosophically twisted as his best films, you won't be let down by this savage masterpiece. Without a doubt one of the best films of the year. I want to watch it again as soon as possible.
As for the transfer itself it is spectacular, better than I even expected. The film has some very dark scenes obviously, and they are all rendered perfectly balanced, I also didn't notice any edge enhancement. The darkly colored nature of the film, it being a Russian mobster film, is recreated excellently and this has a very film like texture to it, including some excellent use of film grain to give it that added film like texture. The level of detail is also astounding, because the production design and costume design are so vivid and beautifully done. The flesh tones are also perfectly rendered, this is what high definition is all about, and I can't wait to see other Cronenberg films in high definition, there is just so much to look at. A real feast for the eyes, even if some of it is disturbing.
The sound structure of this violence drenched film is surprisingly low key, only because there is an abundant amount of very well written dialogue. We have a Dolby Digital TrueHD track that really kicks in when the violence does start, through, and the score by Howard Shore is just as great as his best with Cronenberg and certainly shines throughout the entire film. Excellent sounding track.
I must say I am a little bit surprised about the lack of extras, though. I'm sure it's because they wanted this out there before Oscar time, but normally Cronenberg gives the most fascinating commentaries out there and also his DVDs have some of the best made special features out there.
The first feature is called, 'Secrets And Stories' and it doesn't last but a mere 11 minutes. It has all of the cast and Cronenberg explain in detail how they created this film in London, they also discuss the very well written script by Steven Knight.
'Marked For Life' is a fascinating feature on the Russian tattoos and all of their hidden meanings, you can tell this obsessed Cronenberg and Mortensen. It lasts only 7 minutes. At least the two features on here are in high def, though. And I'm sure this one will be revisited, although I can't imagine it looking any better than it does now, because the transfer really brings out the best of this crime film.
If you are a Cronenberg fan, you must own this version of the film, I haven't seen a film of his yet look quite this perfect, and the story and performances are simply amazing, prepare to be blown away. This is one HD-DVD that really delivers the goods.