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"Our revenge will be to survive."
By Steven Hancock on June 4, 2017
In April of 1915, after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Germans, the Ottoman government began to round up men, women and children of Armenian descent, and either forced them on long marches through the desert, where they would die of thirst or starvation, or outright killed them en masse. Between that time and (by some accounts) 1923, over 1.5 million Armenian Christians died, before the Ottoman empire finally fell. It was from this, as well as other mass killings taking place, that Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1943 or 44. Despite the overwhelming evidence that exists, the Turkish government has never officially recognized the Armenian Genocide ever took place, and many around the world either deny it happened, or are not willing to call it a genocide.
The Armenian Genocide serves as the backdrop for The Promise, the latest film from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda). Beginning in 1914, the film tells the story of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an apothecary living a small Armenian village, who dreams of becoming a doctor to better help his people. After being betrothed to marry, he uses the dowry from the arrangement to go to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to pursuit a doctor’s degree. Living with family there, he meets a Paris-educated Armenian named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who’s in a relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a world-renowned American reporter. Despite both being committed to another, Mikael and Ana fall in love. But their relationship, and the world around them, are torn apart, as the Ottoman government, after joining the Great War, embark on a reign of terror to forcefully remove, and attempt to exterminate, the Armenian population within their borders. As the events tear them apart, all three must do their best to survive in a world gone mad, and get the message of what is going on to the world.
What makes The Promise a truly powerful experience is that the cast and crew do a fine job of giving us a personal connection to the events of the Armenian Genocide through this film. Although the love triangle element of the film is one that has been overused by Hollywood, it works effectively for this film. By showing the personal lives of the people we follow, we develop that personal connection to the characters, so that when the tragic events unfold, we care about the lives of those people, and their families, as they go through the horrors we witness.
What makes the love triangle element work is thanks in part to the great cast assembled. Oscar Isaac, best known to the world as Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, gives a powerful performance as Mikael. We see the torment he goes through as he suffers many tragedies over the course of the film. You feel every moment of his story, from his youthful exuberance at leaving home to embark on the journey to Constantinople, to his struggles with the death and destruction he faces. Isaac gives it his all in this film, and truly delivers a strong performance.
Charlotte Le Bon is equally effective as Ana, the love interest of both Mikael and Chris. She shows both a sense of strength, and of weakness, as she fears losing those she cares about the most. Christian Bale, one of the best actors in the field right now, also gives a strong performance as Chris Myers. One of the things that makes the love triangle element different is that, unlike most occurrences, Chris does not come off as the “weak third wheel” of the trio. Although he has his flaws, he proves to be a good man in his own right, as he struggles to tell the world about what is transpiring in Turkey, while also trying to keep the woman he loves, as well as Mikael’s family, safe from the terrors. Bale is great as always.
The supporting cast of the film, including Shohreh Aghdashloo, Tom Hollander, Jean Reno and James Cromwell, give great performances in the film, helping lift the story to a strong emotional resonance. Although the film has a few slower passages to it, those are mostly forgiven by strong work from the cast, and a moving score by composer Gabriel Yared. But the greatest strength of the film is that, while the main story is fictional, it works to humanize the story that serves as the backdrop. The filmmakers have striven to create a powerful film that shows what those people went through during that terrible period of history, and in that, they were successful.
In closing, The Promise is an overall powerful film about a dark moment in world history, when the Armenian people faced extermination in their native land by the Ottoman Empire, and those who fought to survive, so that their stories would live on. The few weaknesses in the story are overcome by great performances, strong direction, and powerful scenes. This is a film that all people need to see, as a reminder of what transpired, and why we must never allow such atrocities to happen again.