On the cusp of World War I, Turkish Armenians faced grave danger. Turkey joined forces with the Germans, and a “Turkification” of the population ensued. One and a half million Armenians perished in the genocide. Due to denial and government spin, this atrocity was largely unrecognized. Director Terry George brings this story to screens in the epic film The Promise.
As a filmmaker, my challenge is to find stories and characters that allow me to take cinemagoers inside an event about which they had little or no knowledge, and show them that the human spirit can survive and triumph in the most adverse of circumstances. (Terry George, director The Promise)
The Promise introduces a love triangle set within the horrific Armenian Genocide. Golden-Globe winning actor Oscar Isaac stars as Michael Boghosian, a medical student who has come to the vibrant city of Constantinople in 1914, determined to bring modern medicine back his ancestral village. While in Constantinople, Michael meets and befriends photo-journalist Chris Myers (played by Christian Bale) and Ana (Charlotte le Bon), a beautiful and intelligent Armenian artist from Paris. Both men spark an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry.
Drama ensues in both the political and personal lives of the characters. As tensions rise around them, the trio struggles to keep promises. Michael’s betrothal to a woman from his hometown is put to the test when he falls in love with Ana. Ana is torn between her loyalty to Chris and her attraction to Michael. Chis puts himself in danger to keep his promises to Ana.
The political unrest provides a secondary plot. The film tells the little-known story of The Ottoman Empire’s decision to systematically kill and remove Armenians from the country. They start by destroying shops and arresting Armenian men. On-screen violence escalates to mass murders and destructive battles. Hisotry buffs may be disappointed as it doesn’t dive too deeply into the nuances of history. Writers give just enough information to set up conflict for the main characters. Heart-pounding action between the dialogue help viewers feel like they’ve seen a war-time film.
The character development in The Promise is admirable. We see characters grow from idealists to heroes. Academy-Award winner Christian Bale slowly unfolds the complexity of his character, raising him to hero status by the film’s conclusion. Oscar Isaac proves to be a worthy leading man, wearing sorrow, passion, and intensity like a second skin. There is no clear best choice for Ana. Michael must also choose between his fiancé and Ana. These conflicts of the heart deepen our sympathies toward them all. Writers build a solid love triangle, and viewers may find it difficult to make a decision between Team Chris and Team Michael.
Throughout the film, stories of courage emerge. In the midst of sweeping horrors, men and woman from all nationalities join together to save lives. Chris demonstrates the importance of war-time reporters, pointing out,”Without reporters, the Arminian people would disappear without anyone noticing.” His work helps to raise awareness of the plight of the Armenians. The Armenian people join together to fight. They are a resilient people, survivors declaring “We are still here.”
The Promise received some criticism for holding a love story together with the glue of genocide–or maybe using a love story to recount the Armenian Genocide. Human connection through story results in deeper empathy. Presenting one without the other results in a shallow romance or gruesome documentary. By marrying the human-interest piece to the tragic events, The Promise gives us a glimpse into the personal impact of genocide.
A good film makes us care about something important. Like in Hotel Rwanda, Terry George uses the medium of film to honor victims that might otherwise be forgotten. The Promise tells a compelling story and asks us to care, not only about the atrocities against the Armenians in the twentieth century but also the dangers facing many people groups across the globe today. We don’t see the true human impact of genocide in the quick soundbites on the evening news. Honestly, it is easy to grow numb to the horrors because of their increasing frequency. Stories like Ana’s and Micheal’s remind us of the emotional wreckage being left behind. The courage of the characters in The Promise inspires us to get involoved in bringing relief to those affected by violence today.