Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Terry George
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Marwan Kenzari, Shorheh Aghdashloo, James Cromwell, Jean Reno, Tom Hollander, Angela Sarafyan, Numan Acar, Igal Naor, Tamer Hassan.
Political filmmaker Terry George delves into the mass murder of Armenian citizens in his new film The Promise. George wears his heart on his sleeve, and has tackled big subjects before, such as the issue of IRA hunger strikers in his 1996 drama Some Mother’s Sons and the 1994 mass genocide in Rwanda in his 2004 drama Hotel Rwanda. His powerful dramas dwell on some of the darker moments of history and man’s inhumanity to mankind, and he evokes a strong emotional reaction from audiences. Here he returns to the subject of genocide again, but this time shifts the focus to WWI and the Armenian genocide that has almost been forgotten about in the annals of history.
Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman Empire murdered some 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children in a systematic policy of genocide aimed at wiping out the entire population. It has been recognised as one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. This was the first recognised instance of ethnic genocide of the century and even paved the way for Hitler’s later actions with the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. But when the history of WWI is written, this horrific episode is largely forgotten about, and successive Turkish governments have suppressed stories about the genocide, denying it ever happened. There have only been a handful of movies made touching upon this controversial topic, including the 2002 film Ararat, from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, himself of Armenian descent. Ararat caused quite a controversy when released, especially with the Turkish government, who banned the film.
The Promise largely unfolds from the perspective of Mikael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac, from Rogue One, etc), an aspiring medical student from Armenia who leaves behind his family and fiancée to study medicine in Constantinople. He stays with his rich uncle in the city while studying. It is at the university that he befriends Emre (Marwan Kenzari, recently seen in The Mummy, etc), the son of a powerful and wealthy Turkish official, who disapproves of the friendship. Mikael is more of a natural physician than Emre, who faints at his first sight of blood during an autopsy.
Mikael also meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, from The Hundred Foot Journey, etc)), who is the dance teacher for his uncle’s two children, and is attracted to her. But Ana is the girlfriend of Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a hard-drinking American photojournalist working for Associated Press, who is dedicated to bringing the truth to readers across the world. When war breaks out Myers risks his life to report on some of the atrocities committed against the Armenian population by the Turkish authorities, for which he is eventually arrested and charged as a spy.
When war breaks out, Emre uses his connections to gain an exemption from military service because he is studying medicine. He also bribes some officials to gain a similar exemption for Mikael, which earns the wrath of his father. Mikael finds himself arrested and placed into a labour gang. Eventually he manages to escape and return to his home village, which is where he gets caught up in the violent events. He also reconnects with Ana who is working to help refugees escape the persecution of the Turks.
The Promise was largely financed by Kirk Kerkorian, a billionaire businessman and former owner of MGM, who was of Armenian descent himself. This is a deeply personal project for all involved, and is a deeply harrowing and multilayered examination of this shocking episode of ethnic genocide. This is a slow burn film at the start, which makes the horrors and violence of the second half all the more powerful and disturbing. George handles the material with sensitivity, but he also brings muscle to the gritty and disturbing scenes of violence and action. The climactic sequence featuring a daring evacuation is quite exciting and stirring. With its story about refugees and ethnic cleansing and divisive politics, The Promise has contemporary resonances as well, especially given the current crisis in Syria and Iraq, and shows that those who don’t learn from history are largely doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
The film was shot on locations in Spain, Portugal and Malta, and it has the sweep and epic feel of a David Lean film. The film boasts some lush production values, superb period detail, and gorgeous cinematography from cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who is better known for his work on the Twilight saga and his work with Woody Allen.
The film works as a nice companion piece to Bitter Harvest, a film that looked at the deliberate policy of genocide by starvation that Stalin initiated against the rebellious Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, another horrific crime against humanity that has largely been ignored. That film was let down by its rather bland romantic subplot; here The Promise also suffers from the prominence given to the corny and cliched romantic triangle between Mikael, Ana and Myers, which bogs the narrative down unnecessarily. The lack of palpable chemistry between the three leads doesn’t help either.
While it lacks the tight focus and control of Hotel Rwanda, The Promise still gets its message across fairly effectively. Writers George and Robin Swicord (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, etc) intertwine fictitious characters into the real events here. James Cromwell contributes a brief appearance as US Ambassador Morgenthau who clashed with the Turkish authorities, and most of the dialogue of their exchange was drawn from his own memoirs. George has attempted to remain faithful to the historical facts relating to the genocide.
Isaac delivers a sincere and impassioned performance as Mikael, and he grounds the film. Bale brings a gruff quality to his performance here but he also occasionally chews the scenery. The supporting cast includes Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael’s mother, Tom Hollander in a small role as a fellow prisoner Mikael encounters on the chain gang, and Jean Reno as a French naval commander who helps evacuate Armenians from the beaches while under heavy artillery fire from the Turkish army.
Even though it is dealing with important subject matter and tells a story that demands to be told, The Promise is a slightly flawed and melodramatic film that seems to come from an earlier age when Hollywood made films that mattered.