Anna Ivanovna, a British-Russian midwife at a London hospital, finds a Russian-language diary on the body of Tatiana, a 14-year-old girl who dies in childbirth. She also finds a card for the Trans-Siberian Restaurant, which is owned by Semyon, an old vor in the Russian Mafia. Anna thus sets out to track down the girl's family so that she can find a home for the baby girl, having meetings with Semyon, whom she initially regards as friendly. Anna's mother Helen does not discourage her, but Anna's Ukrainian uncle and self-described former KGB officer, Stepan, whom Anna asks for help with the translation of the diary, urges caution. Through translation of the diary, Anna comes to learn that Semyon and his ignorant therefore unstable son Kirill had abused the girl, addicted her to heroin, forced her into prostitution, and raped her. Ultimately, Anna realizes that the baby was fathered by Semyon (in several scenes it is made clear that Kirill is impotent and never had sex with Tatiana).
Semyon's driver is Nikolai Luzhin, who also serves as the family cleaner, dumping murdered bodies in the River Thames. Through Nikolai, Semyon, fearing prosecution, promises to give the location of the girl's family to Anna if she hands back the diary. Nikolai takes the diary but does not give a location, instead urging Anna to keep the baby in London. Semyon distrusts Anna's uncle Stepan and orders Nikolai to kill him. Nikolai accepts and soon Stepan goes missing. As Nikolai's star rises within the vory, an impressed Semyon sponsors him as a full member, due in part to Nikolai's protection of Semyon's incompetent son, who authorized a hit on a rival Chechen vory leader with the help of a Kurdish associate, Azim. The hit was ill-advised and not approved by Semyon. Two Chechen hitmen soon arrive in London seeking vengeance and kill Azim's nephew who also took part in the hit. Semyon hatches a plan to trick Nikolai into temporarily taking Kirill's place during a meeting at the baths with Azim. The Chechens attack, thinking Nikolai is Kirill, but Nikolai kills them both, ending up in the hospital with severe wounds.
It is revealed that Nikolai is actually an FSB agent who has infiltrated the gang, working under license by the British Government and a senior police officer. As part of his undercover duties, Nikolai was able to read Tatiana's diary before Semyon destroyed it and hatched a plan to have Semyon arrested for statutory rape, with a paternity test of Tatiana's baby as evidence. Stepan is also safe, hiding in a 5-star hotel in Edinburgh for protection. Semyon orders Kirill to kidnap the baby girl and kill her. But as Kirill sits by the Thames working up the courage to throw the child in, Nikolai and Anna find him and persuade him to give the baby back. Nikolai and Kirill embrace as Nikolai tells him that his father is finished and they are now the bosses. Nikolai and Anna kiss and part for the last time. Nikolai succeeds Semyon as boss of the organization and Anna gains custody of Tatiana's baby, whom she names Christine.
When Anna, her mother Helen, and her uncle Stepan meet Nikolai at a fast food restaurant, this was filmed in Bermondsey, south-east London at a Wimpy bar.
The entrance to the "Ankara Social Club" of the film is actually the front door of a residential flat. The Broadway Market hair dresser known as "Broadway Gents Hairstylist" was changed to "Azim's Hair Salon", where in the film one of the Russians is murdered. The owner Mr. Ismail Yesiloglu decided to keep most of the shop front after filming. In the original script, the name was "Ozim's Hair Salon", but it was later changed to "Azim's" as there is no such name as Ozim in Turkish.
The "Trafalgar Hospital" is actually the Middlesex Hospital, a hospital in the Fitzrovia area of London, which closed to patients in December 2005. The building in central London, which was knocked down in 2008, had the inscription 'Trafalgar Hospital', matching the style and apparent age of the old Middlesex Hospital, inserted into the legend above the main door.
Viggo Mortensen studied Russian gangsters and their tattoos. Mortensen spent a lot of time with a Russian Mafia specialist, Gilly McKenzie (organised crime specialist for the UN) and also consulted a documentary on the subject called The Mark of Cain (2000). The tattoos that he wore, according to the New York Daily News, were so realistic that diners in a Russian restaurant in London fell silent out of fear, until Mortensen revealed his identity and admitted the tattoos were for a film. From that day on he washed off his tattoos whenever he went off the set. Mortensen said of the significance of the tattoos:
"I talked to...(authentic gangsters and Gilly McKenzie)...about what they meant and where they were on the body, what that said about where they'd been, what their specialties were, what their ethnic and geographical affiliations were," Mortensen says. "Basically their history, their calling card, is their body."
With one exception, the tattoos Mortensen wore were accurate for the character he played. The crucifix on his chest is inappropriate for a mob chauffeur, because it incorrectly indicates that he is a "Prince Of Thieves" in the Russian Mafia.
Consistent with the trademark violence in much of Cronenberg's work, Eastern Promises features a graphically violent fight scene in a steam bath where the combatants wield linoleum knives. When asked in an interview about the difference between "gun violence" and "knife violence," Cronenberg replied, "We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script. The choice of those curved knives we use in the steam bath was mine. They're not some kind of exotic Turkish knives, they're linoleum knives. I felt that these guys could walk around in the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say 'we're linoleum cutters'."
Adam Nayman of Eye Weekly reported that director Cronenberg said "just don't give the plot away" and Nayman wrote "his request is understandable." Nayman said "there is one scene – the in-depth discussion of which prompted the director's anti-spoiler request referenced at the top of this story – that should rank not only in his personal pantheon of spectacularly deployed gore but among the most exhilaratingly visceral patches of cinema, period, full stop."Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert noted Cronenberg's quote and agreed, saying: "He is correct that it would be fatal, because this is not a movie of what or how, but of why. And for a long time you don't see the why coming."
In the United States and Canada, the film opened in limited release in 15 theaters on September 14, 2007 and grossed $547,092 — averaging $36,472 per theater. The film opened in wide release in the United States and Canada on September 21, 2007 (expanding to 1,404 theaters) and ranked #5 at the box office, grossing $5,659,133 — an average of $4,030 per theater. The film has grossed $51,202,291 worldwide as of January 31, 2008 — $17,266,000 in the United States and Canada and $33,936,291 in other territories.
The film received widespread critical acclaim from critics. As of June 5, 2010, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 89% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 186 reviews. On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 82/100, based on 35 reviews. Todd McCarthy of Variety, David Elliott of The San Diego Union-Tribune, and film critic Tony Medley noted the twists in the film.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and wrote "Eastern Promises is no ordinary crime thriller, just as Cronenberg is no ordinary director", and said that "Cronenberg has moved film by film into the top rank of directors, and here he wisely reunites with Mortensen" who "digs so deeply into the role you may not recognize him at first." Ebert said the film has a fight scene that "sets the same kind of standard that The French Connection set for chases. Years from now, it will be referred to as a benchmark."
J. Hoberman of The Village Voice said "I've said it before and hope to again: David Cronenberg is the most provocative, original, and consistently excellent North American director of his generation." Hoberman said the film is "directed with considerable formal intelligence and brooding power" and continues the trend of "murderous family dramas" seen in Spider and A History of Violence. Hoberman called the film "graphic but never gratuitous in its violence", "garish yet restrained", "a masterful mood piece", "deceptively generic" and said the film "suggests a naturalized version of the recent Russian horror flick Night Watch." When describing the cast, Hoberman said "Mueller-Stahl may be perfunctory...but Vincent Cassel literally flings himself into [his role]" and "Mortensen is even more electrifying as Nikolai than in A History of Violence".
Chris Vognar of The Dallas Morning News gave the film a "B+" and said "The film's genius performance belongs to the venerable Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the family head with a twinkling eye and an air of avuncular, Old World charm." Vognar wrote "Where some may see melodrama, Mr. Cronenberg locates timeless, elemental struggles between good and evil, right and wrong. But he makes sure to place a mysterious gray area front and center, personified here by Mr. Mortensen's Nikolai", writing "Nikolai Luzhin is...like Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man...only more dangerous" and "scarily enigmatic." Vognar wrote that Eastern Promises shares themes of "ambiguous identity and rage-soaked duality" with A History of Violence and said both films "have a lock-step precision and both take a sly kind of joy in subverting genre expectations." Vognar said Eastern Promises "is a little too mechanical for its own good...but the mechanics also produce an admirable crispness and sense of purpose, a sense that the man behind the camera knows exactly what he's doing at all times."
Film Journal International critic Doris Toumarkine said the film is a "highly entertaining but sometimes revolting look at a particularly venal branch of the Russian mob." Toumarkine wrote that Mortensen and Watts "are intriguing moral counterpoints. They are also the key ingredients that make Eastern Promises a highly delectable and cinematically rich borsht that upscale film fans will devour." She described Mortensen's performance as "startling," called Watts "touching," Cassel "particularly delicious," but said "Mueller-Stahl, Cusack, and Skolimowski don’t have as much to chew on." She said the film "is also blessed by Howard Shore's restrained score, which lets the film’s other estimable elements breathe through." Toumarkine also said the film is "essentially a character-driven crime thriller but is also a bloody tour de force laced with considerable nudity and sexually bold content that will rattle the squeamish."
Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle gave the film one star out of four and said it had a "contrived plot" and wrote "what it's really about, more than sensitivity for displaced people or social analyses, is violence — hideous, gruesome, over-the-top violence." Westbrook said "For Cronenberg, such cheap sensationalism is business as usual, and this far into his career, that business has slipped into artistic bankruptcy." Westbrook wrote the film "isn't about Russian gangs so much as Cronenberg's own dark passions not just for violence but excruciating carnage, which he brandishes mercilessly" and that the film was "a stifling descent into grim shock and disturbing awe."
The film was nominated in five different categories in the British Independent Film Awards for 2007, and won in one category, gaining a Best Performance by an Actor in a British Independent Film award for Mortensen.
Speaking in August 2010, Cassel said that a sequel was discussed with Cronenberg whilst they were filming A Dangerous Method. Cassel suggested that the sequel will be filmed in Russia with Cassel and Mortensen reprising their roles.
In April 2012, producer Paul Webster told Screen International that a sequel was in the works, which would reunite director Cronenberg, writer Knight, and actor Mortensen. The film was said to be made by Websters new production company Shoebox Films in collaboration with Focus Features and was to begin production in early 2013. That August, however, Cronenberg stated that Eastern Promises 2 was "dead": "We were supposed to start shooting 'Eastern Promises 2' in October... [But] It's done. If you don't like it talk to James Schamus at Focus. It was his decision."
^ abRoger Ebert (September 14, 2007). "Eastern Promises". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 22 October 2007. "Just don't give the plot away," Cronenberg begged in that interview. He is correct that it would be fatal, because this is not a movie of what or how, but of why. And for a long time you don't see the why coming.