“The Promise, beautifully shot and authentically dressed, is a sprawling epic, in the grand manner” says Dara Higgins
On the eve of the First World War Mikael (Isaac) is a young Turkish Armenian small-town pharmacist with dreams of one day becoming a doctor. But he’s skint, and college costs serious dosh. So little’s changed, eh? Anyway, there’s a way for him to achieve his dream, and that is to get betrothed to the daughter of a local moneybags, go do his studies, return in a couple of years and raise babies. With a velvet bag of 400 gold coins, the sun shining and Constantinople on the horizon, what could possibly go wrong?
To begin with, it goes swimmingly. Making contact with a distant, well off cousin, new friends and cadavers in college, and being introduced to the negligible charms of his wealthy family’s dance tutor, Ana (le Bon), her gregarious boyfriend, the renowned journalist Chris (Bale). Life in the big city is an eye-opener for young Mic.
Mikael’s new life is late night dancing, absinthe, dissection and luxury, in a cosmopolitan city where one can get anything one likes in the Grand Bazaar and German military officers show off their latest warships on the Bosporus. War’s in the air, in case you didn’t know. Mikael and Ana grow close, bonded by their ethnicity and hickness. Indeed, Ana’s returned to Turkey from Paris to eventually “reconnect” with her family in their small village in the sticks. With Ana’s relationship to the aggressive, work-obsessed and drunken Chris seemingly always teetering on the edge, and with Mic’s uncle offering to buy him out of his dowry to his betrothed, a woman he hardly knows and doesn’t love, there seems no real reason why the pair of them can’t get it together. Other than Mikael’s PROMISE. He made a promise, see. Being that he’s taken his wife-to-be’s money and gone away for a few years it’s not actually much of a promise.
But these are interesting times in which our protagonists live, and once Gavrilo Princip plugs the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand, an inexorable, world changing series of events are in motion. The Ottoman Empire, the sick old man of Europe as it was, starts to panic about its imminent disintegration, and hell breaks loose for all non Turkish minorities. Armenians, along with other Christians, Jews, whoever really, become fair game to rampaging Turkish mobs. Traders are beaten in the streets, people torn from their homes and chucked in chokey. It’s grim all round.
When his Uncle’s incarcerated on spurious grounds, Mic splashes the last of his gold coinage in bribes to free him, but it all backfires when he himself is imprisoned. Thus begins his journey of shit. From hard labour camp to escape, to witnessing destruction and mass murder up close and personal, and his coming of age among the triage of the battlefield as he and Armenian partisans resist the regime, The Promise tries to tell us, through Mic and his friends, the story of Armenian suffering 100 years ago.
If we’re to ask the question “have I come out of this movie knowing more about the massacre of Armenians” then the answer is not really. The backdrop of their suffering is interchangeable with any atrocity. The Baddies could be Nazis, Brits, Romans – or any random wankers. The story of the ménage a trois and the desperate desire to do what’s right in the face of this egregious oppression are the key here, not necessarily the oppression itself. As such the actual genocide is merely backdrop, but attempting to sum up the hows and whys of such violence is the job of documentaries, and many of them. Unravelling the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is the stuff of doctorates, and we only have a couple of hours to spare here.
The Promise, beautifully shot and authentically dressed, is a sprawling epic, in the grand manner. Think Doctor Zhivago or Gone with The Wind, films of that ilk. The sweeping, indifferent effects of war push our heroes to do things, defines them, but it could be any war. Mic could be Coptic, Greek – any other oppressed minority really. There’s nothing necessarily Armenian going on here. This is only an issue when the film presents itself as something of a document regarding the ill-treatment of Armenians by Turks, adding in a postscript that reminds us that 1.5 million of them were done away with and that the Turks have yet to acknowledge these acts much less attempt an apology. The film however is merely entertainment. As such it’s paced well, the performances are all fine, Bale’s is intense, scene chewing as always, Isaac is acceptably credulous, Le Bon somewhat wan and irritating. The epic sprawl is the story and the people become their traits. Angry journo, earnest doctor, free spirited dancer, and less actual people. There’s a peppering of astute cameos – Tom Hollander’s brief stint as an incarcerated clown, James Cromwell as the American Ambassador throwing around threats that are not his to wield “If you hurt an American citizen, blah blah blah.” Are the Ottomans so easily cowed? Jean Reno is briefly haughty as a French Admiral – good to see him.
The film shies away from the visceral reality of atrocity and war. We don’t see flesh torn and bone exposed as is so beloved these days (I’m looking at you, Mel). Which is grand, we don’t need to see someone’s exposed intestines to know that they’re dead. We don’t really need to the machinations of mass slaughter – the dying of thirst in desert, the beheading, the actual carnage meted out on innocent Armenians. It’s not played for shocks, thankfully. We can do the maths ourselves.
The film ends with a quote, that tells us when two Armenians get together, they’ll create an Armenian nation. The Promise seeks to do the same, by calling some characters Armenian it feels as if the job of telling us about their genocide is done. But it isn’t. Directed by Terry George, who also made Hotel Rwanda and wrote, among others, In The Name Of The Father, The Promise suggests a fervent interest in niche atrocity, and should be commended. As a war themed epic, it’s a grand whizz, but as some dissertation on the suffering of a group of people at the hands of cruel and indifferent masters, it’s a tad unsatisfying.