In 2004, screenwriter Stephen Knight went prowling in the London underworld and found one of the year's best big-screen stories—Dirty Pretty Things. In that film, illegal immigrants accepted laborious, thankless, humiliating jobs just to scrape up enough cash to survive. For some, desperation led to dangerous deals, like selling their bodily organs to the black market. But the underworld's overlord was eventually challenged by a brave, compassionate man—a hotel employee with medical skills—who stood up to defend the defenseless.
This year, Knight goes deeper into London's shadows and finds another story about monstrous people who take advantage of the vulnerable. He also finds another conflicted soul who takes measures to help a woman in jeopardy. This time, that "hero" is a member of the Russian mafia.
It starts like this: When a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) saves the unborn child of a dying Russian woman, she decides to look for the infant girl's family. How can she locate them? Anna decides to sift the dead woman's diary for clues.
But there's a problem. The diary's in Russian, and Anna needs help translating it. Her parents (Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski) are reluctant; they think that the dead woman's belongings should be left alone.
So Anna appeals to a Russian restaurateur, a softspoken fellow named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Semyon is more than willing to translate the diary. In fact, he has a personal interest in it. He's the head of the local Russian mobsters, and he suspects that the diary may reveal some of his deepest, darkest secrets. When Anna realizes her mistake, it's too late—she, her parents, and the infant are caught in the claws of London's most dangerous crook.
These gangsters—an exceedingly dangerous lot called the "vory v zakone"—are involved in all kinds of crimes. Led by Semyon, who calls himself "the king," and annoyed by his son, a reckless drunkard named Kirrill (Vincent Cassel), their routines involve killing off their enemies, cutting off the corpses' fingers, and dumping the bodies.
Furious, Anna confronts Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), one of Semyon's thugs, demanding to know how he could work for such a monster. Nikolai insists that he's "just a driver."
Just a driver? We've seen Nikolai's heartless participation in Semyon's crimes. We also know that he's been imprisoned in Siberia. Wild tattoos are strewn across his whole body like graffiti, including an elaborate crucifix across his chest. He stands before his superiors, stripped bare, and boasts, "I am dead already. Now I live in the zone all the time." Nobody bothers to ask Nikolai what he means by "the zone," and that's probably for the best.
The suspense rises as Nikolai takes a personal interest in Anna. Soon, he's taking action to protect her and her family from his dangerous boss, who is so anxious to bury his secrets that he's willing to bury those who discover them as well.
Some of the best films of the last few years have taken us deep into dangerous territory, where we've witnessed bloody and terrible deeds. In The Departed, we watched an undercover agent struggle with moral compromises as he crept up close to the criminal kingpin and attempted to bring him down. In The Lives of Others, a Stasi surveillance agent went undercover, only to discover compassion for his targets as his conscience flared to life.