The title sounds somewhat generic, any possible promise. However, this is a far more serious and interesting film than the title might indicate.
The main question an audience might ask itself while watching the film and, especially, afterwards, is how much they know about the 1915 genocide of the Armenians at the hand of the Turks of the dying Ottoman Empire. There have not been so many feature films about this significant theme of early 20th century history, the Turks themselves never having admitted that the elimination of over 1 million Armenians was a genocide, a kind of ethnic and religious cleansing. Canadian director of Armenian ancestry, Atom Egoyan, did make a film about the genocide and its impact, Ararat. In 2007, the Italian Taviani Brothers made a dramatic film about the events, The Larks’ Farm. Because of the few films about the genocide, The Promise becomes more important.
The film opens in an Armenian village in southern Turkey, the central character, Mikael (Oscar Isaac) the local apothecary whose ambitions it is to be a doctor. He becomes betrothed to a local girl with the support of his parents, her father giving him 400 gold coins which will enable him to travel to Constantinople and study medicine. His promise is that he will return, marry, grow to love his wife.
This is 1914. Constantinople is an impressive city but the Ottoman Empire is in decline. German officers are present in the city, making allies of the Turks for participation in World War One. Mikael enjoys the city life, at home with his uncle and cousins, comfortably off with their shop, studying at the University where he meets Emre, a wealthy playboy who is studying medicine to avoid military service, and his friend Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist with Associated Press. He has already met Chris’s partner, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who tutors his young cousins.
All seems well until war breaks out, jingoistic Turks rise up against the Armenians, smashing shop windows and destroying stock, literal dancing in the streets. When Mikael and Emre are called up, Emre gets an exemption because he is a medical student, using his father’s name to get an exemption for Mikael. His father, an imperious Imperial man is not pleased and Emre goes into the military and Mikael is arrested and sentenced to hard labour in the Turkish mountains, the building of a rail track.
The soldiers are brutal, the work hard, injured men shot. There is a cameo by Tom Hollander as a prisoner who used to be a clown, who entertains with a little performance but who is willing to carry explosives, an explosion which enables Mikael to escape.
One of the complexities is Mikael’s falling in love with Ana, his disappearance, his being able to return to his village and being persuaded by his mother to survive by marrying his betrothed.
And all the time, in the film, there is the background of the rounding up of the Armenians, many sequences reminding audiences of the uprisings against the Jews before World War II as well is the genocide. There is a powerful sequence where Chris Myers drives into the desert, discovers a long line of Armenians walking into their exile or to deaths, a woman collapsing and a soldier brutally shooting her. He sends reports of these events to the newspapers, gaining a controversial reputation but somewhat safe was America has not entered into the war. The Turkish authorities deny all his stories but there are some harrowing scenes of prison and an intervention by Emre.
And while the war continues and the persecution of the Armenians, there is a complication of the love triangle and Mikael and his promise.
Circumstances bring the three characters together again, a Protestant minister working to protect Armenian children and get them to the coast to safety.
There is a particularly chilling sequence where Mikael discovers the people of his village shot to death by the river, piles of prone victims on the riverbank. As the Turks pursue the refugees, there is a buildup to the confrontation in the mountains by the coast, a French steamer coming in to attempt a rescue, and some tragic deaths.
There is an aftermath when Mikael, who has survived, decades later is in the United States celebrating the marriage of a young cousin, remembering the past, but also the statement that the best revenge is in surviving.
Some commentators have mentioned Dr Zhivago as a kind of parallel story, occurring at much the same time. The value of these dramatisations, along with the romance included, means that and audience will be caught up in the stories, the personalities – and appreciate the devastating realities.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting