(2017—Director: Terry George)
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
For much of his career, Irish writer-director Terry George drew from his experiences of the Irish “Troubles” to craft absorbing tales of perseverance in an oppressive landscape. This ranges from Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite getting framed and imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit in 1993’s In the Name of the Father (dir. Jim Sheridan) to Don Cheadle sheltering Tutsis in his hotel in 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. With The Promise, Mr. George tackles the Armenian Genocide, which many historians regard as the first “modern” genocide and the second most-studied after the Holocaust. I suspect the latter is due in part to the formidable denialist campaign spearheaded by Turkey, which should challenge filmmakers to portray with a more direct focus the undeniable atrocities of the genocide. Mr. George, while succeeding in populating his work with grand, epic production value and a few intense action scenes, joins the list of a handful who fall short of that goal.
The Ottoman Empire senses its impending dissolution as the world of 1914 prepares for war, but such a circumstance occupies only a small part of the mind of Armenian apothecary Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). Eager to attend medical school in the grand city of Constantinople, he proposes to Maral (Angela Sarafyan, The Immigrant), whose family’s dowry provides him with the means for travel. Mikael arrives in the city and stays at the estate of his wealthy uncle, where he meets the beautiful Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon, The Walk), a fellow Armenian and artist who spent most of her life in Paris. Despite their mutual attraction, Mikael finds himself unable to romance her due to her close professional relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight, The Big Short), an American journalist for the Associated Press.
This love triangle of Mikael and Chris vying for Ana’s heart establishes itself as World War I breaks out and the empire enacts its conscription program, which Mikael avoids at first due to his medical student exemption. At around the same time, the Turkish army begins, almost by design, to round-up Armenians, including Mikael’s uncle. Mikael attempts to rescue him from prison, but is unceremoniously stripped of his exemption and finds himself at a remote labor camp among other, steadily overburdened Armenians—only the first of several tactics Mikael witnesses firsthand to systematically stamp out the Armenian people and prevent him from reuniting with Ana and protecting his family back home.
Co-written by Terry George and Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), The Promise succeeds when anyone from the main trio find themselves in imminent danger. One of the stronger sequences involves Mikael when he manages to escape his labor camp and, under the cover of darkness and rain, make the long trek back to his village. During his journey, he hitches a ride with a freight train, where he discovers and attempts in vain to liberate fellow Armenians, corralled like cattle in the cramped compartments (reminiscent of and foreshadowing the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust). The film shines the most in its third act, where Mikael, Ana, and the armed and mobile Armenian refugees fend off the approaching Turkish army at Musa Dagh, a mountain on Turkey’s southern coast where the French are rushing to rescue them. Here, the film generates moderate suspense from the eleventh hour approach of the French Navy and how the Armenians do not know when and where the next Turkish artillery shell will impact.
Still, the film exhibits a noticeable lack of committing directly to the atrocities of the genocide at hand, despite the consistently strong production value. Many recognize the genocide as historically factual, but decades of Turkish-influenced denial have caused it to fall behind the shadow of the more studied Jewish Holocaust. Now that the Armenian Genocide seeks a stronger awareness via the cinematic front, the film’s focus on the generic love triangle for much of its first half erodes at the impact of the genocide itself, almost as though the genocide was merely background noise. Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon, with their generic love triangle roles, do only so much with their material, which wastes their talents in roles that any actor could play.
A lush, romantic story such as The Promise could have used one or two previous successful and memorable films on the genocide to give audiences some familiarity. As a love story separated from the goal of bringing awareness to the Armenian Genocide, The Promise provides enough beautiful landscapes as well as a few intense sequences to make the trek to the theater worthwhile, hopefully paving the way for a critical and commercial hit centered around the genocide that will put even the most ardent deniers to shame. That film, be it the Armenian Schindler’s List, The Pianist, or Son of Saul, demands a passionate voice—one as passionate as Terry George or any Armenian with a cinematic gift—that bravely allows the genocide to invade the frame to the point that the audience feels it surrounding them, not kept at a distance behind a bland love story.
When that film should arrive, alas, remains in limbo.