Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review - The Promise - Terry George’s epic new film about the Armenian genocide chimes with twenty first century conflicts and displacement

The Promise documents the displacement and genocide of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It’s a shocking piece of European history that director Terry George beautifully captures in his new epic film.

Michael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac) travels from his rural village to the bustling city of Constantinople and lives with relatives while he pursues his dream of studying to become a doctor. He meets fellow Armenian, a family tutor and artist Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who lives with American journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale).

Michael’s somewhat idyllic existence – only complicated by his betrothal to a young woman back in his village – is shaken up by the upsurge in anti-Armenian sentiment and the attacks on property and arrest of community leaders.

A protracted love triangle illuminates the conflict’s human impact on the Boghosian family. This is woven around universal scenes of mass displacement, slave labour, battles, massacre and escape by sea that explain the vast scale of the genocide.
“I made a promise: I can’t go back on that.”
There’s a curious mix of sentimentality, romantic scenes (that seem cheesy due to the lack on on-screen chemistry) and cinematic coincidences that are balanced with the unfolding series of atrocities and an action-hero journey full with stunts, shooting and explosions. The end result mostly maintains its equilibrium, though the hand of history rests a little too firmly on the final scene.

The audience heart strings are evenly tugged in three directions – Michael’s relations and relationships, the Armenian people as a whole, and a specific group of orphans – yet the final string is never pulled quite so tightly as the first two.

As well as not spotting Tom Hollander’s brief appearance, you’ll leave the cinema without knowing the Ana’s surname. While she gets one of the key lines of dialogue – “Our revenge will be to survive” – she never gets to move the plot forward by her actions. That is left in the hands of men, chiefly Michael, his Turkish student friend Emre (played by Marwan Kenzari) and the cream-suited Chris whose reportage cleverly provides cinema audiences with additional examples of the state’s brutal actions.

Conversations around The Promise will mention other iconic films like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List and it certainly has a splash of Titanic about it. Thankfully The Promise is more than a one-dimensional tale seeking to make its lead characters into heroes. Terry George has returned to the theme of genocide and explores the complexity of propaganda, state lies to cover up killing – “war, or the evacuation of the Armenian people to a safer location?” – conscripted soldiers, church-sponsored NGOs assisting the most vulnerable, trust and cross-community sacrifice.

The 134 minute run time doesn’t feel overly long. The craftsmanship underpinning the film is obvious and contributes to the serious feeling of the production. The editing avoids rapid cutting yet doesn’t leave shots to linger for a second longer than they need to. Golden sunshine floods wide shots of countryside. Eastern Orthodox choral laments are effectively used to signpost moments of terror. The foley work will win awards. The Fez rental bill must nearly rival the hire false moustache budget.

The Belfast preview of The Promise was held on 24 April, the annual day of commemoration for the 1.5 million Armenian people killed in the sustained genocide that peaked in 1915. The Turkish government – of the state that succeeded the Ottoman Empire – continue to deny that genocide took place

The mention of Aleppo as a place of refuge for Armenians fleeing their homes reminds modern day viewers that one hundred years after the on-screen atrocities, ethnic and religious cleansing and killing still carries on across the world. So too does the displacement of people, forced out from homes and areas that no longer feel safe to live in.

The Promise will be screened in Movie House cinemas from Friday 28 April.

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