Synopsis – Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, The Promise follows a love triangle between Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris – a renowned American journalist based in Paris.
My Take – Just weeks after Ghost in the Shell released and tanked (unfairly), mainly due to the extensive negative reception the film received due to its casting, another film which released last week in the US & this week in U.A.E cinemas has also garnered some unwanted attention for itself. No, this film didn’t get its casting wrong, but somehow this Terry George directed film managed to attract reaction from Turkish citizens who went on to slog about 84,000 minus ratings on IMDb even before its release (currently standing on 5.9 from 143,081 users), just in order to discourage people from learning about the 1st actual genocide, which in fact that has been omitted from the history books over the past 100 years. While most of us still consider Adolf Hitler‘s murder of 6,000,000 Jews during World War II, history’s most infamous act, what most people don’t know about is that nearly three decades ago, from 1915 to 1923, the government of the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) killed 1,500,000 ethnic Armenians within their borders. Under the cover of World War I, the Ottoman government carried out mass executions, subjected able-bodied men to forced labor and drove women, children and the elderly on death marches into the Syrian Desert. While most may not agree, but no matter what religion or country one belongs to, there is always something very special about the revelation of a long stifled truth upon which our history is built upon. Drawing inspiration from historical events and adapting a part of Franz Werfel‘s 1933 novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh“, the first book that brought the story of the Armenian Genocide widespread attention around the world, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) is one of the few directors with the right sensibilities to handle themes of genocide with the right level of understanding, prudence and attention to detail required to personalize a human tragedy and thankfully in establishing the turbulent times and the immediacy of living, loving and surviving in such brutal conditions along with a love story to create enough empathy for the general audience.
The story follows Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an apothecary from a small Armenian village, who dreams of becoming a doctor so he can be of service to his people in the early 1900’s Turkey. Engaged to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), Mikael uses the dowry he received from her family to find himself a seat in a medical school in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and promises Maral that he would return as soon as he graduates. Upon arriving in the lavish city to stay with his wealthy uncle, Mesrob (Igal Naor) and his family, Mikael begins the pursuit of his dream while forming friendship with Mustafa (Numan Acar), a fellow medical student and the son of a High ranking Ottoman military officer. While staying at his uncle’s place he also meets Ana Assyrian (Charlotte Le Bon), a fashionable Armenian who lived in Paris, and is now a personal instructor to Mesrob’s daughters. Through Ana, Mikael is also introduced to her boyfriend, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American Associated Press journalist who has been continuingly attempting to send accounts back to New York about the nature of graphic violence being perpetrated against Armenian citizens. As World War I turns Ottoman society into a military state, the intensifying Ottoman campaign against the Armenians causes Mikael to repeatedly cross paths with Ana and Chris, as they all fight to survive, to help the Armenian people and, ultimately, to resolve the very personal issue of their complicated love triangle. Director Terry George has a history of tackling difficult subject matter while making it also entertaining and trust me, this one does not disappoint! The film specifically highlights the Armenian Genocide – something the Turkish government denies to this day, referring to it instead as a “relocation” of nearly 1.5 million Armenians. The production began as a passion project for Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman, philanthropist and the once owner of MGM Studios, who raised the money (to a budget of $90 million) and helped assemble the team, but unfortunately passed away just before production began, I am sure he would have been undoubtedly proud of the finished film. The film is a cautionary historical tale about allowing unfettered and unchecked nationalistic fervor to grip a country which is amidst a depression and having its military, under the fog of war, to perpetrate unimaginable and unprecedented atrocities against men, women, and children simply trying to live in their hometowns based solely on their nationality. The film is an ode to the power of love – not just romantic love, but familial and human love and compassion. While Mikayel, Anna, and Chris see their lives forever torn asunder by the cruelty of genocide and war, there are thousands of acts of love, kindness, and bravery, from Armenians, Turks, and foreigners that really highlight the power of the human capacity to empathize and fight for survival. I particularly liked that the film showed that Turks and Armenians lived side by side normally for a long time. They worked in the marketplace and the school systems and were friends with one another, an extreme sense of nationalism and a sense of license to carry out an ethnic cleansing under the cover of war changed that, but not for everyone. The film was discrete on many fronts so as not to take away from the real story of survival, sacrifice, love and triumph. There is no sugar coating the premeditated murder of a country’s own law-abiding citizens. What was included was significantly toned down from the accounts of my own family members who survived these brutal atrocities. The historical accuracy of the film is quite good, portraying what really happened to the Armenians.
As deeply as the film goes into the suffering of the Armenian people, it never loses touch with the individual human stories which drive its plot. There’s plenty of drama on the personal level, as well as in the overarching political and military realms. The romance subplot, which could have ended up sappy or emotionally manipulative in the hands of a lesser director, further adds to the film’s impact. The film has a tender love story – sure, a triangle – but not unrealistic, mainly as it is told beautifully making you weep for their love and loss. The film does an excellent job of capturing some of the key events, aspects, and atmosphere of the Armenian Genocide as the backdrop of a Dickesnsian story. Even in the most tragic of scenes, the audience is bound to be blown away by the drama of not just the political and humanitarian issues driving the plot, but also of the pure power of nature. The film is as much an ode to the Armenian people and humanity as it is to the once-great Ottoman Empire and the nostalgia of a bygone era. Sure at times, the film seems lacking in nuance, perhaps because it attempts too much. There were a couple of scenes that felt contrived, merely to complete the painting of the broad picture of the Genocide backdrop. I appreciate that the story of the Armenian Genocide needs telling, and connoisseurs of history will be forgiving and grateful. However, I can see how attempting to cover so many facets of the events of the time make it more difficult to weave a tight and coherent story and might not go over as well for general audiences. Lastly, it’s rare that I would think this, but the film’s 133 minute run time might have benefited from an additional 10-15 minutes of detail towards the Turkish military strategies, and both the Armenian resistance and slaughter. The production quality is quite high, with beautiful cinematography, sound and effects and the setting is gorgeously reproduced and the historical and cultural elements feel authentic. From the opulence of Constantinople to the sweeping and imposing shots of Musa Dagh, the backdrop of the film is stunning. The costumes and setting details are also both lovely and historically accurate. The acting is superb throughout, Christian Bale, in particular, was great as a troubled, yet heroic, American journalist. Oscar Isaac was phenomenal as Michael as he totally immersed himself into his role. I was drawn in to every word that he spoke, his eyes showed so much feeling, love, and compassion, his reaction upon seeing his murdered father and butchered pregnant wife by the water’s edge oozed with his heartbreak and pain, his actions and his eyes expressed it all! Charlotte Le Bon was also quite effective and affecting. I associated strongly with all three of these characters, empathizing with the agony and humanity of their sometimes difficult choices and actions. In smaller yet important roles, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Marwan Kenzari, Angela Sarafyan, Tom Hollander, Igal Naor, James Cromwell, Rade Serbedzija and Jean Reno play their parts well. On the whole, ‘The Promise’ is an exceptionally gorgeous epic that is well acted, powerful & enlightening.
Directed – Terry George
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 133 minutes