There are few more horrific events in human history than the Armenian Genocide, in which more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically executed or forced into mass deadly deportation by the Ottoman Empire starting on April 24, 1915. For more than a century since, their descendants have sought justice by asking nations worldwide to condemn the slaughter through officially calling it genocide.
Their hope is to force Turkey, which was formed after the collapse of the Ottomans in 1923, to officially acknowledge the term as well and fully admit the evil that was perpetrated by the Empire. While 29 nations have supported the effort, the US government is not among them, due to political complications.
The film “The Promise,” released last Friday in advance of Armenian Remembrance Day on April 24, is a fresh reminder of the horrors that millions suffered. Much like “Titanic” used a fictional romance as a means of providing an emotional center for the tragic sinking of the legendary ocean liner, the movie uses a love triangle in an attempt to draw viewers in emotionally amid the epic scope of its horrors.
The film focuses on an Armenian apothecary named Mikael (Oscar Isaacs), who has become engaged in an arranged marriage in order to use the large dowry to pay for attending medical school. He dreams of being his village’s first modern doctor, but soon after moving in with his uncle in Constantinople, he meets and falls for a more glamorous Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte LeBon), who is the girlfriend of an American reporter for the Associated Press named Chris (Christian Bale).
Tensions are already brewing between the ruling Ottomans and the Armenians upon his arrival, since Armenians are accused of being traitorous supporters of Russian forces in World War I, while the Ottomans sided with the Germans. The new conflict builds upon centuries of cultural and religious animosities between the Muslim Ottomans and the Christian Armenians, and when riots break out and his uncle is seized and executed by local officials, Mikael realizes that his entire populace is endangered
As he and Ana flee the riots, they take shelter in a hotel room and finally succumb to their brewing passion. Meanwhile, Chris is encountering the atrocities of destroyed villages, with men’s corpses hanging from trees and soldiers shooting random women and children while they are forced to embark on a deadly march out of the territory.
Mikael is captured and sent to a labor camp but manages to escape and return home to his village. His family forces him into the marriage that he had promised, creating a moral dilemma for him that worsens when he encounters Ana and Chris again while they are working to smuggle children out of the country through a Protestant mission.
While the romance helps provide a dramatic hook upon which to present the tragedies, the shocking aspects of “The Promise” provide its most powerful moments. Director Terry George expertly handled similarly tough territory with his 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” which covered the 1994 Rwandan genocide between two ethnic tribes in that African nation.
George provides stunning glimpses of starving men in labor camps, people packed like cattle into train cars en route to their eventual deaths, and callous shootings and beatings, yet handles them with a restraint that keeps them from being gruesomely exploitative. The romantic aspects, however, are often less compelling, occasionally coming off as soap opera material.
Isaacs is a compelling presence throughout, bringing great emotional depth and charisma to both the love story and his journey from idealistic intellectual to a man driven by principle to save as many of his people as possible. LeBon also provides a sympathetic and steely presence amid the hardships, but Bale is an unfortunate weak spot as he portrays Chris with a gruff monotone throughout and a surprising lack of emotional range.
Nonetheless, “The Promise” is a noble effort to ensure that this terrible episode in human history isn’t forgotten. Remarkably, its $90 million budget was financed entirely by the late Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian as an homage to his people, and its entire box office gross has been promised to charities.
Those interested in an often-overlooked piece of history, and the resilience of the people who acted against it, will find “The Promise” to be engaging. While it may not be up to the classic standard set by “Schindler’s List,” its heart is in the right place and it serves as a stirring reminder of both the good and the evil of which humanity is capable. Grade: B
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