For more than a century, much of the world has turned a blind eye to the events that transpired in 1914-1915 leading to the onset of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic extermination of what would become more than 1.5 million Armenians during world War I and thereafter. As of April 24, 2015, there were more than two million Armenians within the Empire. By 1922, fewer than 400,000. During that time period Armenians were murdered, starved, led on death marches under guise of “deportation” or “relocation for safety reasons.” Although some 29 countries have to date acknowledged the truth of what those heinous and horrific actions are, many are still unaware of or blind to the events, while even the United States has yet to formally call it what others have long been honest enough to say – genocide. The Armenian genocide. A story that has longed to be told, acclaimed writer/director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) now gives it a voice with THE PROMISE.
A masterful epic, George utilizes the tools of traditional storytelling as a means to engage the audience. Starting with a love story against which the political situation and horrendous events unfolds, through the eyes and experiences of three or four individuals caught up in their own personal drama, we are immersed in their rapidly changing and dangerous world. Told with facts and historical accuracy on a macro level, most notably with the historic battle and stand-off at Musa Dagh as well as specific events occurring within the overall political climate, on a micro level the personal horror of the genocide is conveyed through the experiences of the fictional characters, Mikael, Ana and Chris.
The time is 1914. Mikael is an apothecary in a small Turkish village. It is a peaceful time with Christians, Muslims, Turks and Armenians living in harmony and as friends. With a talent for medicine and dreams of going to medical school in Constantinople, on his mother’s urging, Mikael agrees to marry Maral, a local girl with a dowery of 400 gold coins. Using the gold coins as a means to go to Constantinople and attend medical school, Mikael promises to return and marry Maral once he’s a doctor.
Living with his uncle and cousins in Constantinople, Mikael gets a taste of a better life as his uncle is a successful merchant. He also gets a taste of beauty the likes of which he has never seen when he meets Ana, tutor to his young cousins. Unfortunately for Mikael, he is promised to Maral and as he quickly learns, Ana has a boyfriend – Chris Myers, an American journalist writing for the AP.
As the political climate heats up, so does the chemistry between Mikael and Ana while Chris is in the field covering increasing tensions in the region as WWI takes shape. Thanks to a well-connected classmate, Mikael manages to avoid being forced into military service when Turkey enters the war, but when violent and destructive rioting breaks out in the normally peaceful streets of Constantinople, Mikael and Ana find themselves in hiding for the night unable to deny their mutual attraction for each other. Needless to say, any chance of togetherness is short-lived when Mikael is forcibly taken by the Army and sent to the desolate mountainous regions to work as a slave building the railroad. And of course, Chris returns from his trek into the desert where he witnessed first-hand the first of what would become many death marches. Chris knows the world is going to hell and he’s on the front line reporting it back to the New York Times; and with Mikael gone, Ana is still with Chris.
As WWI intensifies and the religious and ethnic cleansing within Turkey explodes, Chris is front and center with righteous indignation, repeatedly placing himself in dangerous situations in order to witness and report the atrocities which the government staunchly denies. [As a side note, the heinous acts occurring in Turkey were being widely reported among all the United States newspapers at the time, particularly by the AP.]
Mikael on the other hand, after six months manages to escape the mountainous labor camp and makes his way back to his village, his family and Maral. Fulfilling his promise and marrying her, the two are hidden away in an idyllic mountain cottage owned by Maral’s father where they are to live out their days and “make lots of babies.” When Maral does indeed become pregnant, a situation arises and Mikael must venture back to his village and leave Maral with his parents while he heads out on a mission to find a means for them to flee the country.
Reconnecting with a shocked Ana and Chris who believed that Mikael was either executed or died in a labor camp, Chris secures passage for them all by helping to escort orphans to the coast where ships are waiting to take them to safety. Chris also agrees to help Mikael get his family. But what greets them along the way is unconscionable. Everyone from Mikael’s village, including Maral and their unborn child, are discovered dead, executed, and piled in a river bed; that is everyone except for Mikael’s mother who is badly wounded.
As the group escapes capture and presses onward, eventually connecting with other refugees, all make their way to Musa Dagh, a mile high mountainous gateway to the sea and the ships that will take them to safety. Close behind is the force of the entire Turkish Army. While there have been third-party witnesses to the genocide (aka reporters), there have been no survivors to tell of the cruelties inflicted upon them. That could all change now.
Oscar Isaac delivers an award-worthy performance as Mikael Boghosian. Working with a dialogue coach, his accent is authentic and contrary to what so often happens with some actors, Isaac never slips up or misses a beat with the dialect. He is consistent which further immerses the audience in the character and the story. There is an intensity, but also a gentle kindness that Isaac gives to Mikael. As fraught with sexual tension as his scenes are with Charlotte Le Bon’s Ana Khesarian, the familial love between Isaac’s Mikael and Shohreh Aghdashloo as his mother Marta leaps off the screen. The mother-son dynamic is the heart and soul of THE PROMISE as it’s the mother’s wisdom and the son’s desire to honor that wisdom and advice that puts the events into play for Mikael while the script always brings Mikael’s actions full circle back to his roots and upbringing. It’s beautiful to see this unfold.
Christian Bale, as usual, immerses himself and embodies the character of Chris Myers to the point of not knowing where does Bale end and Myers begin. A significant character beyond that of adding a third side to the love triangle, Chris Meyers shows us a different side of journalism, back to a time when journalism truly was journalism, and the importance that outside reporters from agencies like the AP were critical in telling the world the truth about what was happening in Turkey. Also key is the inclusion in the script by George, the perception that being an American journalist provided some degree of immunity, but as we see played out in THE PROMISE (and as we have seen over the past two decades in the Middle East) that is not what the reality is.
According to Terry George, Bale studied those period reporters in particular as there was an evolution in journalism going on which went from straight reporting in an office to field reporting. This is when the “Muckrakers” came to be as a society of journalists to do exactly that, to have more to say about what was happening, and with a more florid style. “The big important thing was that the AP in particular, but with journalists [as a whole], this was one of the most heavily reported things in the news at that time in The New York Times and throughout the United States. It caused a huge furor. So we had to do honor to that and find a character.”
Look no further than Shohreh Aghdashloo for a powerhouse performance as Marta Boghosian. Like a lioness protecting her young cub, Aghdashloo imbues Marta with a prowess for navigating life both with the mind and the heart. Aghdashloo is a force to be reckoned with on-screen, mesmerizing at every turn. Beyond the emotionality and inner strength she brings to Marta, her physical transformation throughout the film speaks volumes. As the refugees move ever forward towards the coast and through the mountains, every character is covered in dirt and dust with lips cracked, skin rough hewn by the relentless sun. In speaking with Aghdashloo, she revealed those reddened or rough skin tones or the dirt and dust filling fingernails and lips cracked by Mother Nature, is not make-up. The actors submitted themselves to the mile high trek up a mountain embracing all the elements had to offer up, adding depth to the individual characters and performances. In no one are the hardships of the Armenian refugees more evident than in Aghdashloo’s portrayal of Marta. The awards campaign for her performance in THE PROMISE should start now, aiming at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress.
Charlotte Le Bon’s Ana Khesarian adds just the right amount of beauty and delicacy, an outward delicacy belied by inner strength and furor. And don’t miss James Cromwell’s turn as United States Ambassador Morgenthau. He not only says what the world felt then and still feels now, but says it with kick-ass, no-nonsense conviction.
After the initial script by Robin Swicord, Terry George handled rewrites, and quite honestly, all to the better. As related by George, Swicord’s script was a straightforward love story with people in love who are then dragged through the genocide. Important to George and to the film as a whole was to add Bale’s character of journalist Chris Myers as a tool to open up the film, tell the greater political events, the death march, the conflicts between the U.S. Ambassador and the Ottoman government, the involvement of the French Navy and the involvement of Kaiser Wilhelm in increasing Turkey/the Ottoman Empire’s military power. All of that is what makes THE PROMISE compelling, eye-opening and riveting. On the downside, because of budgeting constraints, everything is condensed into a respectable two hours which required “sandpapering” the script to a bare minimum, thus allowing for what is really only a superficial look at the travesty. But what George delivers is so engaging that it makes one want to do their own research and learn more about the events we have just seen unfold on screen.
Visually, THE PROMISE is a stunner thanks in large part to cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. With a celebration of regional light (shot on location in Malta, Spain and Portugal), ultra-widescreen lensing and challenging but beauteous locations, the result dazzles. In developing the visual tonal bandwidth, color is an important element. We see the beauty of the people and their culture but then the contrast with the horrors of war, the dust and dirt of the desert. Very meticulously designed visuals. With some vistas that harken to those of David Lean, such as in the death march, long lenses give the effect that we’re seeing ants marching while the shimmer of heat from the desert floor rises. Many of the night shoots were shot at night as opposed to day-for-night, thus providing a rich inky night sky as a backdrop. There is a lushness to the visuals in both tone and scope serving as a balance to the horrific backdrop of events. Taking us from Mikael’s village which is almost mythic and idyllic thanks to production designer Benjamin Hernandez, into Constantinople with a brightness and lightness of tone and color and then gradual darkening as war comes and the genocide begins, and then to the dust and dirt of the desert and grey of the mountainous regions before finally arriving at the sea, George uses all of the storytelling elements at his disposal to paint this portrait of history.
Using minimal CGI (Constantinople and a full battleship mirrored from the half that was physically built are the main examples), George relied on physical sets and real people. No crowd enhancement here. When you see a hundred or more people climbing up a mountain, that is really a hundred people climbing a mile up a mountainside; something was done daily according to Shohreh Aghdashloo. Climb up in the morning and down at night. With a film like THE PROMISE which deals with history and reality, by shooting practically and with as many individuals as possible, it is immersive, giving the sense that even though in the audience, one is part of the crowd of refugees.
Completing this journey is Gabriel Yared’s score which, while it could have overshadowed the story and history itself, Yared is somewhat restrained to a beauteous result.
While some may not be enamored with the traditional straightforward storytelling structure chosen by Terry George, given the traditional times of 1914 but with untraditional circumstances, I believe he made the right choice with his structural style. It provides a clarity of storytelling that engages the audience with a love story, but then strips that away leaving history to speak for itself.
Eye-opening, heartbreaking, thought-provoking and epic, THE PROMISE is a film for the world to see.
Directed by Terry George
Written by Terry George and Robin Swicord
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Shohreh Aghdashloo, James Cromwell