The genocide of Armenians by the Ottomans from 1915 to 1923 claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million men, women and children. It’s a black stain on history that, to this day, Turkey still furiously whitewashes. Cinema has sporadically dealt with this subject in the past, but now The Promise (★★★, cert 12A, 133 mins) is attempting to bring the story of what happened to the Armenians to the mainstream. It is, apparently, the most expensive independent film ever created, funded by the late Kirk Kerkorian, a businessman of Armenian descent who once owned MGM. The film tells the story of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), who is studying medicine in Istanbul when the genocide begins. He is sent to a labour camp, which he escapes from, subsequently returning to his village where he marries his long-term betrothed.
As if this wasn’t enough to occupy him, Mikael also finds himself caught in a love triangle involving his true love Ana (Catherine Le Bon), a cosmopolitan teacher, and Chris, an American reporter played by Christian Bale. This entanglement plays out as they, along with members of Mikael’s family, try to escape Turkey.
Irish director Terry George, whose credits include In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, has created an old-fashioned picture about an old horror. He has said that he was consciously channelling Doctor Zhivago and The English Patient, by using the Armenian genocide as the backdrop for a love story.
When describing his film as an unashamed romantic epic, George also had a pop at critics who he was sure would not appreciate this approach. I’m sorry to say, as far as this hack is concerned, he was spot on in this prediction, because the decision to turn The Promise into a sentimental love story was a poor one.
The Promise certainly deserves praise for bringing the Armenian genocide to wider attention than it has had in the past. Major moments in the genocide are charted sensitively, but with enough horror to shock. These scenes include Constantinople’s version of Kristallnacht, the slaughter of Armenians in the Syrian desert and the Musa Dagh siege, with the latter bringing to mind the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in Iraq. But the flimsy central narrative feels weak by comparison to this tumultuous backdrop. The plot is packed with effortful, predictably contrived moments that will fail to satisfy even the most amenable Saturday matinee crowd. At times, only the sturdy presence of Isaac and Bale keep the enterprise afloat.
László Nemes’s Son of Saul showed that it’s possible to make great art about a monstrous historical event that also tells a powerful human story, a twin feat that The Promise conspicuously fails to match. But perhaps you should take Terry George’s advice and ignore me. I’m just a critic, after all.
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