‘The Promise” is the first major Hollywood production to show the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. It dons the mantle of such importance through a story and images that reflect the atrocities in the way “Schindler’s List” did. The movie serves as a heartrending memorial to a people who persevered even in the face of some of the most inhumane actions in history.
Because of the importance of the story, it would have been easy for director Terry George to give into focusing on the nightmarish imagery of the attempts made to wipe an entire race off the face off the face of the Earth. That would have made for a moving production but limited the audience to those with personal ties to what happened in Armenia.
George certainly delivers haunting and memorable images, but he also adds to the power of the events by pulling in a more general audience with a story of a love triangle set against the horrors.
Mikael Pogosian (Oscar Isaac) lives in a small Armenian village on the eastern edge of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Through a promised marriage, he gets the 400 gold coins he needs to travel to Constantinople where he will study medicine.
Before their love can flourish, Mikael is captured and taken to a prison work camp. He escapes and returns to his village where he marries and goes to a cabin in the mountains for protection. That ends when his wife experiences a difficult pregnancy and the couple must make a dangerous return to the village.
The script by George and Robin Swicord smoothly mixes the larger picture of what is being done to the Armenians with the love story. Both are integrated so smoothly that they support each other.
The lives of these three people separate into their own stories of heroism. Myers fights valiantly to tell the world about the genocide while Ana devotes herself to helping save Armenian orphans. Mikael must fight to stay alive while facing an onslaught of horrors.
Isaac turns in a strong performance as he is the very human face of the genocide. His inhumane treatment coupled with the pain he suffers comes through in emotional waves that grab at your heart with a relentless power.
He’s very believable as a devoted son, husband and lover because while his actions exhibit bravery, he never rises to a stereotypical heroism. His is a real story of life, death and a horrible reality.
It helps that Bale and Le Bon are equally up to the task. They are such strong and likable characters, they make the love story all the better. Unlike many Hollywood stories where one person in the romance is usually unworthy, these are three good people who all have good hearts.
“The Promise” is a throwback to movies of the mid-20th century where large epic scenes play out through the lives of a few average people. It uses that design as both a lightning rod for a massive political issue and as a compelling draw about the story of the strength of the human heart.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Angela Sarafyan, Charlotte Le Bon, James Cromwell, Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Director: Terry George
Rated PG-13 (mature thematic elements, violence, some sexuality)
Opens: Friday, April 21