Romance and revenge
‘The Promise’ aims to be epic, falls short
The bloody 20th century’s holocaust before the Holocaust is largely unremembered in the hectic 21st.
It occurred as World War I engulfed Europe, in the once great but then collapsing Ottoman Empire: the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenian civilians living in eastern Anatolia under the “Young Turks” rule (1915-1918).
It’s a very old but still very sore subject, dear to the broken hearts of Armenians everywhere, especially the late Armenian-American financier/MGM chairman Kirk Kerkorian, who spent 10 years and $100 million or so to bring this problematic film to the screen.
“The Promise,” a romance set against a nightmarish historical backdrop, follows the love triangle of brilliant doctor Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), beautiful sophisticate Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), and her ace journalist boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale).
It’s actually a quadrangle, opening in Mikael’s little Armenian village, where he marries sweet Maral (Angela Sarafyan), primarily to get the dowry money he needs for med school in Constantinople — Istanbul — with a promise to return.
Once ensconced there with affluent relatives, he is seduced by the city’s magic and majesty and by upper-crust Ana (peacocks roam in her garden), while Chris doggedly reports for the Associated Press: The Turks, having joined the war on the German side, are rewarded with battleships and tacit permission to eradicate the Armenians, “an infidel tumor in our midst,” accused of collaborating with Christian Russia, Turkey’s enemy.
Mikael is spared, for a while, by his family’s and friends’ bribes from the persecutions. But the violence mounts in horribly familiar fashion: deprivation of citizenship, followed by expropriation and “relocation,” starvation on forced marches, deportations in cattle cars, massacres of women and children, slave labor of the men — and, finally, extermination camps. In painful hindsight, it would become a clear blueprint for Hitler’s “final solution” in Germany.
Director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) is commendably concerned with genocide, on a sweeping scale. His “Promise” clearly aspires to David Lean heights, with “Dr. Zhivago” the obvious model: A gentle, beloved doctor in love with two very different-class women. Oscar Isaac even looks like Omar Sharif. He is very good in his role, as are his colleagues: Ms. Le Bon’s endearingly irregular teeth are fascinating, somehow. Mr. Bale is always solid. (I breathlessly await his rumored portrayal of Dick Cheney in a biopic set for 2018.)
The film contains some
beautiful scenes and scenery — Armenian church services and a village wedding, for example — and deserves much credit for incorporating U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (nicely played by James Cromwell), an unsung, truly heroic figure in the story). But despite its colorful battles and vivid re-creation of the last days of Constantinople, there’s insufficient context for audiences to make sense of the vicious ethnic “logic”of the situation.
It’s not as epic as it wants to be because it vacillates and alternates, in too facile a way, from macro tragedy to micro soap opera — the former losing focus to the latter.
Descendants of the 1.5 million murdered Armenians have long called for the crime to be recognized as a genocide, but the Turkish government continues to deny long-established proof of its official premeditation.
And then there’s the online troll scandal. “The Promise” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to a standing ovation, but before the critics even left the hall, let alone wrote their reviews, the film’s IMDb page was flooded with tens of thousands of dismal one-star ratings. The campaign originated on Turkish government-related websites, summoning users to “downvote” the film on IMDb and YouTube. (It’s a growing problem for all sorts of other films and TV programs.)
In the end, the movie is not all that the Armenian diaspora might have hoped for, but earnest and moving despite its flaws — a “Promise” half kept, half broken.