A $100 million budget is almost unheard of for an independent film, but the late billionaire philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian wanted to make a statement. In the past, Turkish Islamist deniers of the Armenian Genocide have been remarkably successful censoring Hollywood and other prospective producers of films depicting the Ottoman-orchestrated mass murder of ethnic Armenia Christians, but they couldn’t silence Kerkorian, who entirely financed the production of Terry George’s The Promise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
The Promise releases in theaters a mere six weeks after Joseph Ruben’s irredeemably shameful The Ottoman Lieutenant, a Turkish-produced attempt to obscure and trivialize the Armenian Genocide, but it should generate considerably more interest due to it’s A-list cast (Christian Bale vs. Josh Hartnett) and infinitely superior intentions. As the film opens, ambitious young apothecary Mikael Pogosian has agreed to marry the earnest Maral after first using her dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople. It is not love, at least not on his part, but he recognizes her goodness and so assumes he will grow to love her over time.
Yet, as soon as he sets foot in the fashionable home of his father’s wealthy merchant cousin, Pogosian falls head over heels with the children’s music tutor Ana Khesarian. She too is already in a problematic but committed relationship with crusading American journalist Chris Myers, so both try to deny their burgeoning attraction. However, as anti-Armenian violence erupts throughout the Sick Man of Europe, Pogosian and Khesarian are thrown together in ways that breaks down their resolve.
Inevitably separated from Khesarian, Pogosian finds himself detailed to a work brigade that will consigned to a mass grave once they finish the road they are toiling on. The doctor-in-training will escape the fate assigned to him, but he will witness far more horrors as he makes his way through the formerly Armenian provinces, ultimately arriving at the fateful Musa Dagh.
The Promise is not anti-Muslim. Indeed, it takes great pains to introduce Emre Ogan, Pogosian’s Muslim colleague at medical school, who consistently tries to shield his friend from anti-Armenian discrimination and persecution. Of course, the fun-loving Ogan will not be any Islamist’s idea of a Muslim, but it makes him all the more sympathetic to rational viewers.
Frankly, we have yet to see the defining, hearts-and-minds changing film on the Armenian Genocide, but at least in the case of The Promise, it was not for a lack of trying. Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon develop decent Yuri-and-Lara chemistry as Pogosian and Khesarian. Bale is terrific as the heroic but deeply flawed Myers. However, the great Shohreh Aghdashloo and Angela Sarafyan (technically the only true Armenian cast-member) really pack an emotional wallop as Pogosian’s tough but loving mother Marta and his loyal intended Maral, respectively.
In fact, there are dozens small but accomplished supporting turns distributed throughout The Promise, including Rade Serbedzija as the steely mayor leading the resistance at Musa Dagh and Marwan Kenzari as the likable but ultimately tragic Ogan. Plus, James Cromwell memorably gives the Ottoman authorities a stinging moral rebuke as American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.
The Promise is a big, sweeping film, but it suffers from its formulaic predictableness. George and co-screenwriter Robin Swicord were clearly looking towards David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago as a model, but there is no analog for Sir Alec Guinness’s wild card performance as Lt. Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago. No matter how many times we watch Zhivago, we still do not quite know what to make of him, whereas we can quickly pigeonhole every character in The Promise.