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Terry George, a writer and director from Belfast, feels most at home in situations where there are conflicts. We apologize for the inadvertent wordplay. In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997), both starring Daniel Day-Lewis, he collaborated with director Jim Sheridan to create two of the most harrowing and unforgettable movies about his native country and its turbulent past. When he was in front of the camera, he didn’t pick rom-coms; instead, his 1998 HBO film “A Bright Shining Lie” examined the Vietnam War fiasco from a particular military viewpoint, and 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda” centered on one man’s efforts to stop the Rwandan massacre. Even George’s underappreciated personal drama “Reservation Road,” which debuted in 2007, had a wider argument about societal issues at its center.
Together with Robin Swicord, George co-wrote “The Promise,” which presents the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century as a side exercise in the Ottoman Empire’s partnership with Germany as World War I was about to break out. The Turkish government of today still refuses to recognise the fact that this action resulted in the deaths of well over a million persons. In fact, there are several scenes in the recent film “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” which is set in the same era as this one, that have a strong “whatever Armenians WERE slain kind of had it coming” sense. This movie is produced in part by Turkish interests. Additionally, denialists of the Armenian genocide have already given this movie a negative IMDb rating. George has the good quality of not backing down or flinching when he tackles an issue and speaks the things that need to be said. But it’s impossible to dispute that “The Promise” in some ways drags its feet before getting to the heart of the matter.
The love triangle at the center of the plot is the choice made by George and Swicord. In order to travel to Constantinople and enroll in medical school, young Mikael Boghosian, an apothecary from a town in Southern Turkey, enters into a betrothal with a young woman from a wealthy family. He meets the stunning Anna, an Armenian artist, in the home of the wealthy relative he is staying with. Chris Myers, a devout American journalist who also enjoys heavy drinking, is married to Anna. That direction is clear.
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Oscar Isaac takes some time to get comfortable in his position as Mikael, possibly because there isn’t much of a role to get comfortable with for a while. He is the epitome of goodness and sincerity. Mikael makes a buddy at the institute where he is enrolled and responds to the question, “So you’ve already studied medicine?” with, “Yes, it’s my passion,” but no amount of cleverness Isaac can apply to the character can save the sentence. He reminds himself and Anna that he is actually engaged to someone else after confessing his passion to her. Charlotte Le Bon does a fantastic job of portraying Anna, who ultimately ends up pushing the matter. The reason Chris, played by Christian Bale, has the most vitality and intelligence is, at least in part, because the problematic character possesses these qualities in the greatest quantities. These three individuals lose and find each other repeatedly while war decimates everything around them in each of the settings they visit. Alliances are established, trusts are shattered, and then history intervenes.
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For Mikael, that starts out as a prison camp, from which he is eventually able to escape thanks to a dramatic occurrence involving “weeping” dynamite. The young woman he had abandoned is Maral, whom he marries when he returns to his town. The couple’s relatives conceal them in a cabin in the mountains, where Mikael eventually comes to love his bide. The storyline of the noble man who marries his beloved while secretly harboring feelings for someone else is reminiscent of “Doctor Zhivago.” However, the Turkish exterminators are wreaking havoc as Anna and Myers organize resistance to the Armenian “evacuations” at a Protestant Mission.
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Unsurprisingly, the movie’s most visually striking moments occur when things are at their worst. The most powerful parts of “The Promise” are the sequences of running, fighting, and terrible loss. The movie is well produced and full of beautiful sunrise and sunset vistas. It is jarring to see how brutally Armenia was treated. George is determined to focus his narrative equally on the deceased and the made-up survivors. That is how “The Promise” merits the disturbing title.
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