It might just be coincidence, but the past few weeks have offered dueling cinematic portrayals of the official policy toward Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire that began in 1915. While it resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, the Turkish government refuses to accept its characterization as an act of genocide, though the international community has increasingly adopted that view. In “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” financed by Turkish sources, Armenian rebels are depicted largely as bandits colluding with the Russian enemy, and thus as much responsible for the policy as the government that undertook it, supposedly as a justified means of survival; moreover, the titular army officer was portrayed as a hero who, when he recognized how the policy was being abused against innocents, resisted it at risk of his own life. Now “The Promise,” produced by a consortium of Armenian backers (led by the late Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian), presents the event as a premeditated attempt by a brutal regime to exterminate an oppressed minority—a precursor to, and indeed inspiration of, the Holocaust—in which one finds exactly one “good” Turk—also an army officer—who is summarily executed by his superiors for assisting in getting word of the atrocity out to the world.
Obviously the perspectives of the two films are diametrically opposed, but they share one fatal quality: both use the cruelty merely as a backdrop to a hoary, old-fashioned romantic triangle (or, to be more precise in this case, quadrangle). The spoke of the wheel is Mikael (Oscar Isaac), a sweet-natured young apothecary in an Anatolian village where Turks and his fellow Armenians live together in amity. Anxious to study at the medical school in Istanbul, he agrees to an arranged engagement with Maral (Angela Sarafyan), whose wealthy father offers a dowry sufficient to cover his tuition; Mikael promises to return after completing his degree in order to serve the townspeople as their doctor—and marry his betrothed.
Thus in 1914 Mikael arrives in Istanbul, where he stays with his uncle Mesrob (Yigal Naor), a wealthy merchant, and becomes a star pupil, unlike his friend Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), a Muslim who gets along well with him despite being the son on a bigoted and politically powerful father. But Mikael’s pledge to Maral is endangered with he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the French-trained tutor to his young cousins, and the attraction between them is palpable, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a globe-trotting (and emotionally volatile) American journalist who has traveled from Paris with her to report on the Turkish-German alliance in World War I. Ana is caught between her loyalty to Chris and her obvious interest in Mikael, while Mikael is torn between his growing love for her and his promise to wed the girl he left behind.
But events soon intervene to prove to them all that, as Richard Blaine so sagely observed, their problems are small potatoes in comparison to what’s happening around them. A roundup of Armenians by the Turkish government commences and Mikael is shipped off with hundreds of other prisoners to work on a chain gang building a railway expansion under the watchful eyes of brutal guards. He manages to escape—as the result of a self-sacrificial explosion arranged by a fellow worker who, in one of the scripts most shameless bits of manipulation, has just identified himself as a former circus clown who made children of all ethnic backgrounds laugh—and works his way back to his village, where he marries Maral at the insistence of his mother Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo). The newlyweds then repair to an isolated cabin to make a simple but honest life for themselves. Meanwhile Ana and Chris arrive, having rescued Mikael’s cousins and brought them to the village.
Many melodramatic complications ensue—not least the fate of Mikael’s marriage and of the villagers, as well as the arrest of Chris on espionage charges. All of it, however, is merely preparatory to the film’s big finale—the presence of Ana, Mikael and Chris, along with a large group of refugees (including a troupe of orphans they have rescued from a Red Cross mission), at the battle of Musa Dagh in 1915. As depicted here by writer-director Terry George and co-scripter Robin Swicord, the Armenian resistance there was led by Stephan (Rade Serbedzija), the mayor of one of the towns in the region, whose forces held out on the mountain until the survivors could be saved by the arrival of a French warship commanded by a courageous admiral (Jean Reno). Of course, the Mikael-Ann-Chris triangle must be winnowed down there, too; and George adds a postscript celebrating the survivors many years year—a virtual paean to the Armenian spirit.
“The Promise” has some virtues. Visually it has been well produced, with an epic period sweep embodied in Benjamin Fernandez’s production design and Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s costumes, as well as Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography. And it includes some interesting historical elements—such as a cameo by James Cromwell as U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who was in fact a lonely voice protesting the slaughter as it was occurring. For the most part, however, the picture, like “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” strives for a “Dr. Zhivago” quality that it fails to replicate. The script tries to integrate its formulaic melodramatics into the historical context, but does so in such a pedestrian fashion that they instead diminish the enormities of the barbarity against which they’re set—an effect made all the more evident by Gabriel Yared’s swooning, overbearing score.
And while the cast is game, none of the actors are at their best. Isaac is pallid and recessive, while Bale is frenziedly animated–one of his worst performances. Le Bon is attractive but little more, while the immediately recognizable Aghdashloo, Reno and Cromwell break the authentic feel that George is striving, none too successfully, to maintain.
Anyone looking for a film that tries to address the Armenian genocide in a more profound way is directed to Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat”—by no means a flawless work but an intelligent, multi-faceted one. By contrast “The Promise,” while undeniably earnest, is dramatically inert.