Cast is stel­lar, but du­elling tales of love and geno­cide keep film from great­ness

Montreal Gazette - - MOVIES - CHRIS KNIGHT

No film genre is more laden with good in­ten­tions — and more likely to col­lapse un­der the weight of them — than the Holo­caust movie. For ev­ery mas­ter­piece — Schindler’s List, of course, but also the lesser known 2007 Ger­man film The Counterfeiters, or Hun­gary’s Son of Saul, which won the best for­eign-lan­guage Oscar a year ago — you can find Robin Wil­liams in Jakob the Liar, or Jerry Lewis in The Day the Clown Cried. (Ac­tu­ally, good luck find­ing the lat­ter, the re­lease of which Lewis has done his best to sti­fle.)

Part of the prob­lem is that geno­cide raises emo­tions like few other his­tor­i­cal events. It’s dif­fi­cult to even ap­proach the topic im­pas­sively, and yet ex­treme pas­sion isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the best frame of mind for film­mak­ing. Re­mem­ber Wordsworth’s dic­tum that po­etry is emo­tion recollected in tran­quil­lity? It holds for his­tor­i­cal drama too.

Ac­tor Harry Shearer, one of the few peo­ple to see Lewis’s film about a clown in a con­cen­tra­tion camp, de­scribed it as be­ing like a black-vel­vet paint­ing of Auschwitz: “You’d just think, ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and some­body’s try­ing so hard in the wrong way to con­vey this strongly held feel­ing.’”

Re­cent less-than-per­fect,

geno­cide-themed re­leases have in­cluded The Zookeeper’s Wife, a mostly san­i­tized story of a Pol­ish cou­ple who hid Jewish refugees in their empty zoo dur­ing the Holo­caust; and Bit­ter Har­vest, which melds a made-up love story with the events of the Holodomor, a Soviet-in­duced famine that killed mil­lions in Ukraine in the early 1930s. Nei­ther ro­mance nor his­tory gets its due in the re­sult­ing mash-up.

Which brings us to The Prom­ise, an­other film that com­bines a fic­tional story of thwarted love with the his­tor­i­cal truth of geno­cide. The set­ting this time is Turkey in the clos­ing days of the Ot­toman Em­pire, and the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide that took place there dur­ing the First World War.

A mostly stel­lar cast is an­chored by Oscar Isaac as Mikael Boghosian, an Ar­me­nian apothe­cary liv­ing in a small town in South­ern Turkey in 1914. As the film be­gins, he has de­cided to get en­gaged to a lo­cal woman from his vil­lage and to use the dowry to pay for med­i­cal train­ing in Con­stantino­ple. In spite of the some­what mer­ce­nary na­ture of this plan, every­one in­volved — fu­ture hus­band/doc­tor, fi­ancée and in-laws — is happy with it.

In the city, Mikael is taken in by a kindly (and wealthy) rel­a­tive and meets Ana (Cana­dian ac­tress Char­lotte Le Bon), who’s been hired as a dance in­struc­tor to the man’s chil­dren. Sparks fly be­tween the Paris-ed­u­cated dancer and the hand­some doc­tor-in-train­ing, but any ro­mance is hin­dered by Mikael’s be­trothal (hence the film’s ti­tle), and by Ana’s re­la­tion­ship with Chris My­ers, an Amer­i­can re­porter played as a pas­tiche of jour­nal­is­tic clichés by Chris­tian Bale.

And by the geno­cide. Shortly af­ter Turkey (in the form of the Ot­toman Em­pire) en­ters the war, racism rears its head as the gov­ern­ment be­gins a cam­paign of bru­tal­iz­ing and killing eth­nic Ar­me­ni­ans. Di­rec­tor Terry Ge­orge (Ho­tel Rwanda) presents images of de­stroyed busi­nesses, mass graves, box­car de­por­ta­tions, labour camps and a host of other images that would, trag­i­cally, be­come more fa­mil­iar in the next war’s bet­ter doc­u­mented Holo­caust.

Mikael is sep­a­rated from Ana and sur­vives an im­prob­a­ble se­ries of catas­tro­phes that you just know will end up with them cross­ing paths again. Isaac de­liv­ers his usual su­perb work, never over­play­ing the char­ac­ter’s emo­tional jour­ney while open­ing him­self up for au­di­ence em­pa­thy. How he re­mains Oscar-nom­i­na­tion-free af­ter roles in Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina and A Most Vi­o­lent Year (and yes, Star Wars), is a mys­tery.

Bale has less to work with in the screen­play by Ge­orge and Robin Swicord — blus­ter and out­rage mostly — but he’s fine among a cast that in­cludes some stand­out ac­tors — James Cromwell, Rade Serbedz­ija, Jean Reno, etc. — in rel­a­tively mi­nor roles. If there’s a weak link among the per­form­ers it’s un­for­tu­nately Le Bon, who never quite reaches the heights of love or ter­ror de­manded by the story.

And ul­ti­mately, the ten­sion be­tween ro­mance and his­tory is what keeps The Prom­ise from be­ing a great film. It’s a pow­er­ful and im­por­tant tale to be sure, but the love tri­an­gle keeps pulling us away from the pol­i­tics. Or vicev­ersa, de­pend­ing on what takes your in­ter­est.

With the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the first mod­ern geno­cide, the mas­sacre of some 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans dur­ing and af­ter the war is also one of the leas­tremem­bered atroc­i­ties of the 20th cen­tury. It is widely de­nied, most in­fa­mously by the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment.

And it stirs great pas­sions. Even though The Prom­ise has been seen by just a hand­ful of peo­ple since its de­but at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val last fall, more than 120,000 have weighed in at film site imdb. com to rate it. Half of them gave it one out of 10, while the other half fought back with 10 out of 10. (In com­par­i­son, the pop­u­lar new re­lease The Fate of the Fu­ri­ous has only 32,000 much more var­ied votes.)

The split means the film gets a 5.3 score at imdb, which iron­i­cally seems to be about right. Nei­ther dread­ful nor mag­nif­i­cent, it fea­tures some pow­er­ful per­for­mances in the ser­vice of what should be an un­de­ni­able truth.


Char­lotte Le Bon, left, Oscar Isaac and Chris­tian Bale star in The Prom­ise. Isaac shines in the well-mean­ing, but medi­ocre film.

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