THE PROMISE HOLDS UP
Cast is stellar, but duelling tales of love and genocide keep film from greatness
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.’”
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.