By Jon Cocks (Mount Barker, South Australia)
Historically accurate, lavished filmed with a measured climax on the mountain Musa Dagh, and despite an overly heavy reliance on a love triangle driving the narrative, The Promise succeeds in its primary purpose: to draw the attention of the greater public to the reality of the Armenian Genocide. The love triangle is initiated by protagonist Mikael’s promise to marry Maral, a woman in his village, Siroun, in exchange for a dowry to fund his medical studies in Constantinople. While Turkish and other genocide deniers flood the internet with negative reviews to denigrate its message, this worthy film rises above the shameless attempts to deny it, as well as the outrage it dramatises.
Oscar Isaac (medical student Mikael), Charlotte le Bon (Ana, the centre of the film’s love triangle) and Christian Bale (American journalist Chris Myers) all turn in committed, heartfelt performances. After Mikael falls in love with Ana in Constantinople, the lead trio of actors both ensure the overall emotional integrity of the film, while encapsulating its most telling weakness: the emphasis on the personal journeys of the characters at the expense of a more comprehensive dramatic recreation of the visceral horrors inflicted by the Ottoman Turks on their Armenian citizens.
Isaac and le Bon invest impressive emotional commitment to their on-screen love. Bale labours somewhat with his transition from hard-drinking career journalist to one-man crusader against the Ottomans, who stands by as the love of his life transfers her love to his rival. The reconciliation of the two men at the end of the film lacks conviction. A strong ensemble carries the story from pre-war Constantinople in 1914 to the climax on Musa Dagh, a recreation of Armenian armed resistance, when out-gunned villagers stood up to a Turkish division with antiquated single-shot rifles and sometimes with nothing more than rocks to throw at them. James Cromwell has an impressive cameo as American ambassador Henry Morgenthau Senior, expressing his icy abhorrence of Ottoman excesses to the Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha.
Director Terry George, who rewrote an unproduced screenplay by Robin Swicord, and his cinematographic team have brilliantly created the sights and sounds of World War One Constantinople, as well as the forests, villages and tracks of Anatolia. The climax, with its ferocious close-fought battles was memorable, as were the images of the French ship Guichen, which arrived in time to save most Armenians on the mountain. The mesmerising soundtrack includes masterfully performed works of Armenian maestro Komitas, most notably in a Constantinople church in, a moment of beauty as darkness descends upon the Armenians.
The late Armenian-American entrepreneur Kirk Kervorkian’s $US80 million investment to tell the story may become his greatest legacy. While falling short of being a filmic masterpiece, The Promise delivers on most other levels. It is time that the criminal actions of the Ottoman rulers a century ago be called to account. The cynical denial of its successors to those crimes has guaranteed the unresolved anguish of the entire Armenian nation that continues to this day. The Promise clearly depicts a story that has not been shared sufficiently in the civilised world.