Geno­cide film stirs pas­sions

The Prom­ise strug­gles un­der weight of good in­ten­tions

The Observer (Sarnia) - - ENTERTAINMENT - CHRIS KNIGHT ck­night@post­media.com twit­ter.com/chrisknight­film

No film genre is more laden with good in­ten­tions — and more likely to col­lapse un­der the weight of them — than the Holo­caust movie.

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.

The Prom­ise 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 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, fi­ancee 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 has 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 cliches 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 least-re­mem­bered 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.

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.

SUPPLIED PHOTO

The Prom­ise, star­ring Char­lotte Le Bon, left, and Chris­tian Bale, right, tells the fic­tional story of thwarted love be­tween Ana (Le Bon) and Mikael Boghosian (Os­car Isaac) dur­ing the Ar­me­nian Geno­cide.

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