The savage Armenian genocide depicted in director Terry George’s sprawling, historical epic “The Promise” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) overshadows not only a stellar cast, including Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon, but also a lackluster triangular romance among these characters during the decline of the once formidable Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Set in 1915, as the First World War devastated the globe, this largely humorless, 134-minute, PG-13 rated, extravaganza attempts to do for the little-known Armenian Genocide what “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) and “Reds” (1981) did for the Russian Revolution. While George and co-scenarist Robin Swicord of “The Jane Austen Book Club” deserve kudos for tackling such grim subject matter, the film doesn’t generate sufficient charisma for us to worry about happens to its woebegone lovers entangled in this calamity. For the record, the Muslim Turks slaughtered about 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1918 in an atrocity surpassed only by Nazi Germany’s systematic extermination of Jews in Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Indeed, the history in “The Promise” exerts more dramatic impact than the formulaic characters forged to engross us with their travails. The problem most mainstream moviegoers may encounter with “The Promise” is a complete lack of familiarity with this notorious campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Apart from some foreign films about this genocidal annihilation, such as Germany’s “The Cut” (2014), Italy’s “The Lark Farm” (2007), Canada’s “Ararat” (2002),” and France’s “Mother “(1991), George and Swicord plunge audiences into this wholesale elimination of men, women, and children without making the depiction repellent. Simultaneously, “The Promise” charges Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, for ghastly crimes against humanity which the country has vociferously denied ever happened. Indeed, the initial release of the film in 2016 was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of this tragedy. Bale, Isaac, and Le Bon struggle valiantly to make an impression but their three-dimensional characters swamped in all the blood, sweat, and tears. “The Promise” succeeds more memorably as a history lesson than a tearjerker. Late Hollywood billionaire producer Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American who once controlled the prestigious MGM Studios, sank more than $90 million into the production of this message-oriented exposé. Inevitably, “The Promise” may fare better with overseas audiences than with domestic American moviegoers accustomed to box office fantasies about indestructible superheroes and venerable fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast” because this hotly debated controversy has been juggled like a diplomatic hot potato since it occurred.
A humble Armenian apothecary, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), aspires to be a physician so he can help his people. Sadly, he lacks the financial wherewithal to attend the prominent Imperial Medical School in Constantinople. Ultimately, Mikael embarks on his dream with the dowry–400 gold coins for tuition–that he obtains after he gets engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan of “Mercury Plains”), a naively innocent but ordinary girl from his Southern Turkey village. Although he barely knows Maral, Mikael maintains his promise to marry a woman that he doesn’t really love as soon as he completes his two-year education. When Mikael arrives in Constantinople (now contemporary Istanbul), an affluent uncle, Mesrob (Igal Naor of “300: Rise of an Empire”), allows him to reside with his family. Our protagonist meets a sophisticated Armenian beauty, Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”), who grew up in Paris, France. She serves as a dance tutor for Mesrob’s daughters. Mikael becomes hopelessly infatuated with Ana. Were this not bad enough, considering his promise to Maral, Mikael learns Ana is involved with a veteran Associated Press correspondent, Chris Myers (Christian Bale of “Batman Begins”), who is covering Turkey’s entry into World War I on the Kaiser’s side. Interestingly, Mikael and Chris become stalwart friends, even though they emerge as rivals for the affections of the beautiful Ana.
This fragile romantic bubble bursts when World War I erupts, and each of the three deal with personal hardships. Suddenly, the Turks start shooting unarmed Armenians with little provocation, based on rumors that Armenians have been joining the Russian Army against the Ottoman Empire. A firebrand photo-journalist who thrives on covering headline stories, Myers witnesses Turks shooting Armenians in cold blood. Eventually, the Turks arrest Myers for his dispatches. They accuse him not only of espionage but they also threaten to execute him if he doesn’t retract his stories. The obstinate Myers calls their bluff, and American ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Crowell of “L.A. Confidential”) confronts Turkish officials and demands Myers’ release. Meantime, Mikael has been left destitute from Turkish depredations and becomes a refugee. Sadly, while other Armenians wield firearms to repulse the Turks, Mikael resorts to his medical training to save lives. He stares in horror as defenseless women and children, particularly his Maral, are forced to flee from their demolished homes, trudging through an inhospitable wilderness, with armed Turks menacing them every step of the journey. Later, he watches Maral die during their desperate flight into the wilderness.
Once the Turks release Myers from captivity, the fiery journalist boards a French battleship, commanded by Jean Reno, on the pretext of reporting the news so Americans will understand what is transpiring. The French battleship steams to a rendezvous where they send out lifeboats to Armenians refugees, including Mikael and Ana, as they make their way to the coast. A battle breaks out between the Turks and the French as the refugees row their lifeboats to the sanctuary of the French battleship. Tragedy strikes during a mortar barrage on the lifeboats as Mikael, Ana, and Myers head for the ship. Discretion prevents me from divulging who dies, but the manner of death resembles Leonardo DiCaprio’s fate in the vintage disaster movie “Titanic.” The performances are all first-rate, with Christian Bale taking top honors as the intrepid reporter. Altogether, “The Promise” qualifies as an uneven, but above-average period piece about a timely subject—the Armenian genocide—that is sadly undercut by a mediocre romance.