History is written by the victors. Turkey has denied – or worse, refused to acknowledge at all – the Ottoman empire’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. What better way to commemorate a genocide than with a bland and basic love triangle, amirite?
I don’t want to make light of this sad historical time, but I feel like that’s what this romantic epic does. Jeez Louise I feel dirty even writing that, and yet here we are.
It’s 1914. An Armenian druggist, Michael (Oscar Isaac), gets engaged to local girl Maral in order to afford medical school. Off he goes to Constantinople where a)he promptly falls in love with the beautiful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who’s of course already attached to a journalist, Chris (Christian Bale) and b)Turkey starts slaughtered Armenians, forcing both Ana and Michael to run for their lives.
This is the first big Hollywood film to be made about this atrocity, and it took years to get it made. It was financed by Kirk Kerkorian, whose family survived the genocide. To get The Promise just right, he brought in powerhouse writer, Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Memoirs of a Geisha) and director Terry George (Reservation Road, Hotel Rwanda) and together they managed to water down a very powerful story in order to broaden its appeal. The genocide becomes the backdrop to a love story, and not a very compelling one. Even love takes a backseat when survival is at stake. Plus, it puts the viewer in an awkward position: in order to root for our two heroes to get together, Chris and Maral, who’ve done nothing wrong, will have to die. That seems excessive, doesn’t it?
It’s beautifully, lavishly shot, easily appreciated since the violence is somehow de-emphasized. You can almost see the compromises they’ve made – by aiming for a lower rating, they’ve effectively neutered the film. The acting, however, is its saving grace. All three put in amazing performances. Oscar Isaac has been so consistent lately, and here he even nails the accent.
Yes, it’s melodramatic. The music alone will convince you of that. But it’s a tolerable watch, and, I’d argue, an important one. Since little is known about this ugly chapter in the 20th century, our attention is overdue.