Cinematically, the Armenian genocide is a curiously unexplored subject from early 20th-century history. That fact alone makes director/co-writer Terry George’s “The Promise” an intriguing proposition.
Historical fiction generally has an advantage over documentaries in inspiring wide viewer interest, especially when actors as appealing as Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon are involved. And indeed, “The Promise” does turn out to be a sprawling, handsome epic keyed to the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, starting in 1915.
But despite the best of intentions, the film fails to properly explain and contextualize both what led to that disgraceful episode, which to this day Turkey denies occurred, and why it escalated. Instead, “The Promise” focuses on a love triangle that trivializes its apparent intention.
The goal, as always, is to personalize the events that are too big and too devastating to be examined as a whole. Instead, the focus is put on lives interrupted, cut short and thrown into turmoil because of external forces.
Michael Boghosian (Isaac) is an Armenian medical student from a small village in Southern Turkey who uses his fiancée’s dowry to study medicine in Constantinople. He isn’t in love with his fiancée (Angela Sarafyan), but such is life in Siroun, where marriages are arranged and he doesn’t have any other choice. He kisses her goodbye and heads off to the big city, promising to return in just a few years.
Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon. (Open Road Films)
Constantinople proves a smorgasbord of temptations for Michael, who essentially falls for the first woman he sees. The beguiling Ana (Le Bon) is a cosmopolitan beauty and intellectual, who lived in Paris for years. She’s also an Armenian from near his hometown, but she happens to be in a long-term relationship with Chris Myers (Bale), a journalist who, we’re told, drinks too much.
While Michael is enjoying the city life and lusting after Ana, things are devolving around him. It’s 1914, and signs of war are becoming impossible to ignore — German soldiers at parties, battleships in the harbor and a heightened sense that some Turks are anti-Armenian. Soon, Constantinople’s Armenian intellectuals start getting arrested and taken away. To where is unclear — to fight, to prison camps, to be executed?
Christian Bale, left, and Oscar Isaac. (Jose Haro/Open Road Films)
Likely the intention is to put the viewer on the blurry ground level with Michael and Ana, who see their world turned upside down so suddenly that, of course, there is confusion. That’s where Bale’s Chris Myers should have been more useful. Though he chimes in occasionally with helpful exposition while dictating articles, it’s unclear whether anyone who knows something about the events could track them in a meaningful way.
“The Promise” focuses mainly on the triangle, dropping the three leads into convenient situations that illustrate their world is becoming more dire.
It’s seems unfair to critique such an utterly sincere film for not revealing a lot more about this moment in history. But ultimately it falls far short of its grand ambitions.
Source:: East Bay – Entertainment