In the years around World War I, Turkey’s Ottoman government committed genocide against 1.5 million Christian minority Armenians, setting an example for Hitler to follow similar lines to exterminate European Jews. It’s a tragedy rarely observed in feature films but too important to ignore. It receives a powerful, overdue accounting in “The Promise,” a historical drama with real contemporary relevance.
Director Terry George also addressed the issue of genocide in his Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda.” Now he gives the topic serious attention within the framework of a gripping love affair. He knows how to make audiences cheer or cry — or, best of all, do both at once.
The main player is Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” series), and what a talent he is, touching our feelings by authentically representing those of his character while never ostentatiously parading them. He plays Mikael Boghosian, a gifted Armenian scholar living in the hinterland’s beautiful and foreboding scenery. He finances his entry into Constantinople’s medical school with a dowry of 400 gold coins from a nearby family. Giving his new fiancée a grateful farewell, he prepares to make himself a man of consequence and return for their marriage in which, over time, he’s sure they will learn to love each other.
The capital is a wonderland with dishonest merchants in the markets, showy performers in the clubs and fellow students like Mustafa (Numan Acar), who brings more family wealth and charm than dedication to the medical school. In one of the film’s laugh-out-loud scenes, Mustafa tries to equal Mikael’s speed and surgical precision in removing an organ from a cadaver. It’s a messy prelude to serious bloodshed that will in time arrive.
The city’s women are as fascinating as its men. Few can equal Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian beauty whose Parisian upbringing made her an accomplished dancer and the lover of Chris Myers (introspective Christian Bale), an American war correspondent for the Associated Press. Soulful Mikael is instantly smitten, a feeling Ana echoes, though they are too strait-laced to share more than glances, at least at first.
George follows the classic playbook of sweeping, ambitious historical epics. With superb old-style craftsmanship, he has us watching portentous moments unfold from the perspective of individuals whose fate concerns us. This is a view of history that has room for human feelings. The precise ideology that turned the Ottoman Turkish majority against the few is examined less than images of shop windows being smashed by mobs, violent civilian expulsions, innocents dropping amid forced marches and the dead piled in heaps.
Chris, almost callous in his bravery, puts himself at risk by releasing dispatches of barbarity his hosts would prefer to conceal. Mikael has his youthful illusions crushed as he tries to treat the wounded, and sensitive-yet-earthy Ana falters between both lovers.
The triangle is no allegorical statement about love and war. The characters give the necessarily episodic film a well-crafted focus, and their heroics provide its excitement. The film builds to the historically accurate battle between Armenian resistance fighters and Ottoman Turkish forces.
George has a masterful control of the techniques of action set pieces. His staging, command of battlefield geography, sound, tempo, blocking masses of extras and camera movement forcefully convey the brutality of war. Overall, it is an impressive achievement.