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The Hollywood Insider The Promise Review

Photo: ‘The Promise’ 

Today the Armenian people have found their home in the Glendale diaspora, placing their roots in the small but flourishing city and leaving imprints of their beautiful culture across it. Their story is a long but brave one, a story of families torn apart by the tragedies of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and then of their reunion in cities across the world.

Often undermined in history, the Armenian Genocide lacked publicity by non-Armenian audiences until the film, ‘The Promise’ (2017) raised much-needed awareness. Directed by Belfast-born Terry George, and Robin Swicord, an American screenwriter, ‘The Promise’, offers an inside glimpse into the lives of Armenians backlit by the genocide and the beginnings of World War I and II, two closely tied events. 

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The Love Triangle Juxtaposes the Impending Armenian War

Mikael Bogosian, an apothecary from a village in South Turkey, gets a chance at medical school and a future beyond cobblestoned streets when he marries himself off to a wealthy Armenian family. His life aspirations seem to be all lined up when he meets Ana, an Armenian artist with beautiful doe eyes and even more beautiful words for the young man. 

She’s married to a drunken American journalist, Chris, but finds herself drawn to Mikael as well, catapulting the love triangle between the good and moral Mikael and his antithesis, Chris. Their engagement grows more complicated and feelings of inappropriate love are given a name in a way that almost distracts from the heavier war slowly building in the background.

It requires a keen eye to notice the signs of disharmony forming between the formerly friendly Turks and Armenians, the former’s distinct and dark features separating them throughout the film. Mikael’s friend from medical school, Emre, invites him to a lavish mansion party where the Turks and German soldiers fraternize and sing choruses of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” a provocative war-time song that foreshadows the parallels between the atrocities of Hitler and the Ottoman Empire in their drive for racial erasure. 

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Oscar Isaac, who plays Mikael, takes a moment to fall into his character’s skin but once he does, he is beautifully juxtaposed with Charlotte Le Bon, who plays his lover Ana. Their banter and chemistry are apparent from the moment they meet, and while their lines may fall short of something miraculous, the passion the actors bring forth rescues the script. 

Christian Bale’s character, Chris, is the most lively and vivid, perfectly crafted by the director to be the antihero and to explore the imperfections that lie within each character in the film. While he may seem to be the most obvious obstacle for Ana and Mikael, George’s execution of their characters helps the audience see that the biggest obstacles are the ones that lie within the lovers themselves. 

They may tempt fate and faith in their budding attraction for one another and that less-than moral action is what makes them stronger and more believable characters throughout the film. 

Perhaps the romance can distract from such meaningful interactions and presages of the war, but one can assume in such a heavy-hearted and gruesome story, love is needed to ground and offer something the audiences can relate to. The grit and gore of the war sit thick and leaden on everyone’s mind and while the magnitude of pain is difficult to comprehend, the longing glances and love declarations between Mikael, Chris, and Ana add elements audiences can understand and hold onto. 

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‘The Promise’ – George Doesn’t Shy Away From the Hard Truth of the Genocide

As Mikael continues to experience the racism and hatred that had been hinted at earlier, audiences get their best taste for the way that George set up his film. The story moves in such a way that reflects the shift from long and languid love declarations to loud and urgent actions as the war pushes in from all sides. The script gets shorter, more clipped, as the characters face the truth of the death unfolding before them. 

As the war begins to push in from all sides, the three help Armenian orphans escape to refugee camps and safe havens in places like Aleppo, Syria, where many Armenians escaped to and still live in today. 

Around them, the Turks begin their massacres, entering Armenian villages and drawing out the able-bodied men and intellects, leaving the women and children unprotected and vulnerable to their attacks. They round them all up, intervening, executing, and erasing entire families in their blitz. 

We get stunning shots of the Portuguese and Spanish plains where the cast filmed the battles. The seventy days of production had lots of history to it. George spent months comparing pictures of the Ottoman-era Turkey and the locations where they were projected to film.

The harrowing image of bone and flesh as emaciated children and sobbing mothers are forced to walk down the dessert plains, is one that remains imprinted in your mind as the movie progresses. The set’s skill is matched by that of the wardrobe and costume department, creating accurate and realistic traditional garments that the victims wore. 

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A Fight for Survival and Recognition

As the cinematic crux is reached, the hum of death and tragedy hangs thick in the air and reminds all that the 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives deserve the recognition that all Armenians fight for today. 

This is where the real strengths of the film lie, the gritty story of the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire, and the perfect characters that all try to find their place in the unsteadying world around them. As the movie finishes, it’s less about the love between the three, but more about the love and strength that binds every human in their fight for justice and survival. 

George does not shy away from painful shots and depictions and his effort is celebrated, as the film brought more attention to the Genocide in its first few weeks of release than there had had ever been before. 

The Turkish government may refuse to acknowledge the events that occurred and continue to pressure the Armenians to concede, but Mikael and those who watched his story are left with a raw understanding of what it means to be Armenian, to lose everything you have, and still stand tall and proud of your origins. 

The movie may have been a bit melodramatic, with the love triangle at times distracting but the overall message of resilience and the unfiltered truth that we are exposed to make this the masterfully crafted film about Armenians that it is. 

By Mireille Karadanaian

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