Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, “The Promise” follows a love triangle between Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris, a renowned American journalist based in Paris.
I have to admit, I was not very familiar with the Armenian Genocide which took place during the final years of the Ottoman Empire right around the beginning of World War I. Having gone back to college in the past few years to gain my Journalism degree, this subject came up while discussing World War I and it opened my eyes to the horrors and atrocities that to this day, the Turkish government still denies ever happened. The movie is based very much on the real-life tragic events which befell Armenia during this time period but the romantic element is fictional, comparable to that of “Titanic” or “Pearl Harbor.” As long as the story remains true to the circumstances and environment that transpired during these turbulent times, I have no problem with filmmakers adding a fictional aspect, as long as it doesn’t detract from or overshadow the rest of the historical events.
Oscar Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian, a man who lives in a small Armenian village. Wanting desperately to pursue a career in medicine, but with no financial means to do so, he agrees to marry Marel (Angela Sarafyan), the daughter of one of the village’s wealthiest families and assures his mother that he will come to love her. With 400 gold coins as a dowry, he heads off to Constantinople where he becomes a medical student while staying with his wealthy uncle. Once there, he meets the beautiful and alluring Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian woman who spent many years in Paris and who now lives in Constantinople, teaching his young cousins to dance. Over time, they fall in love with each other, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin, Chris (Christian Bale), an American alcoholic reporter. But before their relationship has time to flourish, the Ottoman Empire begins to round up all Armenians and Mikael and Ana become separated. When he tries to save his uncle from being imprisoned through the help of a friend with powerful connections, he too is arrested and thrown into a labor camp.
Later, after managing to escape, he wearily makes his way back to his village, only to find it destroyed. Under the guise of darkness, he sneaks into his house and is overjoyed to find his parents still alive. They inform him that all the young men of the village have been taken away and that he and Marel need to be quickly married and leave during the night to evade capture so that they can stay at her father’s log cabin in the mountains. For a while, things are normal but when Marel becomes pregnant, Mikael sneaks her back to their village so that she can receive medical attention and while there, he discovers that Ana and Chris had recently passed through on their way to a Red Cross facility to help orphaned children escape the country. Naturally, he decides to follow them, leaving Marel in the capable hands of his parents and eventually has to explain his situation with Marel to Ana, much to her dismay. Mikael decides to help them reach the coast, with the prospect of a new life for the children but along the way, he discovers his entire village, including his pregnant wife, have all been murdered and thrown into a nearby river. With nothing left to live for, the group continues to make their way towards the coast, with the Ottoman Empire not far behind.
Much like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” the movie does not shy away from the horrors of war but because of its PG-13 rating, there is only so much that can be shown, a lot of it, thankfully, implied offscreen. Christian Bale is exceptional as a journalist who when he realizes exactly what is happening, begins to report absolutely everything to the media back in the U.S. and around the world in the hopes of opening their eyes. Charlotte Le Bon, who finds herself torn between the affections of two men who love her, excels in expressing these emotions but this is Oscar Isaac’s movie. He is phenomenal in the role of a man who sets out to help others and by the story’s end, succeeds in helping hundreds of people escape persecution and death, putting his own life on the line repeatedly. “The Promise” is a very somber affair, bolstered by Javier Aguirresarobe’s luscious cinematography and a sumptuous score by Gabriel Yared, but the performances are what truly stand out the most. Much of the younger crowd will recognize Mr. Isaac from Star Wars but in between his jaunts to a galaxy far, far away, he has his feet placed firmly on the ground, here on earth, delivering a subtle but very impassioned performance. For those not familiar with the Armenian Genocide of 1915, go see “The Promise,” I guarantee you will be awakened.
In theaters Friday, April 21st