“Our revenge will be to survive, and have children,” rallies the mayor of an Ottoman city whose Armenian population is targeted for annihilation in Terry George’s “The Promise.” And he might add, “… and one day, to make movies,” since that is ultimately what “The Promise” is about: Aiming to do for the 1915 Armenian Genocide what “Doctor Zhivago” did for the Russian Revolution, this sweeping romantic epic dramatizes a dark chapter in history so often denied and so seldom depicted onscreen — and yet, the events being considered deserve better than a sloggy melodrama in which the tragedy of a people is forced to take a back seat to a not especially compelling love triangle.
Willed into being by Armenian investor-philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, who established Survivor Pictures in order to finance this project before he passed away last year, “The Promise” was conceived as a glossy, English-language entertainment — not to be mistaken for the scrappy biblical stories and desert-set indies consigned to the specialty-film circuit (where Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan’s own treatment of the subject, “Ararat,” went largely unseen). And yet, given the vagaries of contemporary film distribution, it’s unlikely that the film will reach more than a handful of people, despite big-name stars (Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale play romantic rivals) and the fact that no expense being spared.
While Kerkorian and company mean well, audiences can smell earnestness a mile away, and while this overly didactic project was clearly designed to shed light on one of the most controversial mass extermination attempts of the 20th century — controversial not because it happened, but because, unlike the Holocaust, whose architects ultimately lost the war, the Armenian Genocide’s culprits largely succeeded within Turkish borders. (As Hitler preached in justifying his own genocide, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”) Or, as the oft-quoted saying goes, history is written by the victors.
Presumably out of diplomatic interest with Turkey, American presidents have been controversially reluctant to acknowledge this “mass atrocity” as a “genocide.” For Kerkorian, this production represents a chance to write history from the other side, for which he enlisted Academy Award nominee Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) to pen a suitably epic screenplay, centering on small-town Armenian apothecary Michael Boghosian (played by “Inside Llewelyn Davis” star Isaac) and an American reporter working for the Associated Press, Chris Myers (Bale), who both bear firsthand witness to the genocide, while competing for the affections of an Armenian beauty (Charlotte Le Bon).
George (“Hotel Rwanda”), was among the likeliest names for Kerkorian to consider as director, perhaps along with Roland Joffé (“The Killing Fields”). This is conjecture, mind you; both are A-listers whose portraits of genocide have attracted critical acclaim. George, whose portraits of senseless civil war also extend to his native Ireland (“Some Mother’s Son” and “In the Name of the Father”), gave Swicord’s script a heavy rewrite — though the result remains turgidly uninteresting. It’s hard to put one’s finger on precisely the reason stories from this region fail to cross over with American audiences, although in the half-century since “Lawrence of Arabia,” no amount of pageantry can seemingly survive in the desert. (Few remember Isaac’s turn in the little-seen “Agora.”) For all its real-world majesty, the Ottoman Empire — now Turkey — comes off as being a great big, backwards sandbox in “The Promise.”
In late 1914, before heading off to Constantinople to study medicine, Michael makes a promise (there’s that word again) to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan, who could pass for Shelley Duvall’s Armenian-American doppelganger), relying on the dowry to pay his way. Under his uncle’s roof, Michael discovers a gorgeous dance instructor, Ana (Le Bon, whose French accent is explained, though never the fact that the characters all speak English), and things immediately start to heat up between them. Never mind that she’s already committed to Bale’s character, a journalist who loves her dearly, but clearly recognizes what is happening around them as being bigger than their relationship. We are meant to root for Michael in this equation, though it’s hard not to see Chris’ point: With German soldiers all around and the world on the brink of war, Michael and Ana’s sexual chemistry really ought to take a back seat, and yet, someone (Swicord? George?) doesn’t seem to trust audiences to care about their survival unless the script puts them aboard the equivalent of the sinking Titanic.
While Chris moves around documenting the atrocities — which include thousands of Armenians evicted from their homes and forced to march through the desert — Michael takes the opportunity to cozy up to Ana. Following the Constantinople equivalent of Kristallnacht, they sleep together, and as the pogrom’s death count climb, “The Promise” asks us to invest more in their relationship than in the horrors that surround them. In an attempt to show that not all Turks were committed to the Armenians’ extinction, the film supplies a compassionate med-school colleague (Marwan Kenzari), who tries to spare Michael and his uncle (Igal Naor), only to be overruled by his powerful, Armenian-despising father.
Michael spends six months on a heavy-labor detail, where the humiliations feel all too similar to Holocaust films, before hopping a train back to Siroun, the town where Armenians and Turks had long coexisted in peace — but no more. Here at “home,” Michael’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo, yet another Oscar nominee giving her all to this talent-stocked production) forces her son to honor his promise, though shortly after the marriage, Michael senses the danger and starts to plan his family’s escape, hoping to hitch a ride with a group of Armenian orphans bound for the coast.
Shot in colorful, ultra-crisp widescreen (though the ultra-high definition of Javier Aguirresarobe’s digital lensing actually lends an unwanted artifice) and scored to the gills by Gabriel Yared, the film has reached epic scale by this point, and yet, our interest has been taxed in too many conflicting ways: Do we want Michael and Ana to get together? If so, are we secretly rooting for something awful to happen to Chris and Maral? When the French Navy shows up (led by none other than Jean Reno), “The Promise” permits itself to plunge these invented characters into the midst of an actual historical standoff at Musa Dagh — one of the few successful Armenian attempts to resist their Turkish oppressors, which means the Ottoman mayor (Rade Serbedzija) may get his wish: Until this point, they have all been witnesses to the genocide, but now, there could be survivors, and the question of who lives and who dies no longer depends on the Turks’ cruelty, but rather on the screenwriters’ caprices.
The final stretch is little more than blatant manipulation, as “The Promise” ill-advisedly attempts to trump its representation of a genocide-scaled real-world tragedy with the scripted fates of its central characters. Astonishingly, the Americans come off as heroes in the end, as when a U.S. embassy official (played by James Cromwell) comes right out and tells a Turkish authority, “You are using this relocation as a cover for the systematic extermination of the Armenian people.” And yet it should be noted that, as broken promises go, President Obama has never followed through on his 2008 campaign pledge: “… As President, I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”