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The genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in the early part of the 20th century is a mostly ignored and sometimes intentionally suppressed chapter in world history, which makes its use as a backdrop in the lackluster melodrama of "The Promise" all the more disappointing.
Certainly director Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda" and his credited co-screenwriter, Robin Swicord, had their hearts in the right place. But their storytelling conventions namely, a by-the-numbers love triangle trivialize the history and squander a talented cast.
It's 1914, on the eve of World War I, and Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian, has a dream: to leave his little village in Anatolia, where he's the local apothecary, to enroll in medical school in Constantinople (now Istanbul). To raise the money, he agrees to a betrothal to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) and to use the dowry to pay his way.
In Constantinople, Michael meets prosperous relations, which is how he meets Ana Kasabian (Charlotte Le Bon), a Paris-educated Armenian. Ana has been working with, and sleeping with, an American journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who has come to the region to follow up on reports of forced resettlement of Armenians by the Ottoman (now Turkish) government.
As World War I begins and the Ottomans side with the Germans, the Turks begin to vent racial hatred against the Armenians. Mikael ends up in the middle of, or an eyewitness to, many major events: mob violence, arrests, forced labor camps and mass slaughter. There's also denial on the part of the Turkish government, which even today doesn't acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
Through all the hardship and upheaval, Mikael continues to encounter Ana and Chris. Soon a love triangle develops, with Mikael torn between his love for Ana and his duty to Maral back home.
Alas, there's never a moment of this romantic subplot that doesn't feel like a contrivance, a way to get audiences to eat their vegetables and learn about the Armenian genocide. That condescension actually works against the filmmakers' intentions, shortchanging the Armenians' story for limp romantic posturing that wastes the talents of Isaac and Bale, two of our finest actors.
Some familiar faces are also along for the ride Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Mikael's protective mother, and James Cromwell and Jean Reno have pivotal cameos presumably showing support for the cause. One wishes "The Promise" would live up to those good intentions and not make the Armenians supporting players in a stilted soap opera.
The story of the Armenian genocide plays second fiddle to a weakly plotted romantic melodrama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, April 21.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality.
Running time • 132 minutes.