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‘The Promise’ review: Oscar Isaac fights for survival

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'The Promise' review: Oscar Isaac fights for survival

Christian Bale documents new horrors of war in ‘The Promise’

Never forget, goes the anguished cry, but this time the wrong people remembered.

They were the German officers helping their Turkish allies during WWI. The Germans who stood there and watched as the Turks rounded up their nation’s Armenian minority, took their possessions, and loaded them onto boxcars or marched them into the desert for “relocation.”

Those loyal subjects of the Kaiser were being given a lesson in genocide. And they learned.

It is a human catastrophe that hasn’t often been addressed on screen, but finally gets its own, old-school drama in the international film “The Promise” – with Oscar Isaac as an Armenian medical student, Christian Bale as an American journalist and Charlotte le Bon as the women who both divides and unites them.

It’s a story that deserves a true epic – the kind of sweeping movie David Lean once turned out. (A particularly apt comparison, as the events of “The Promise” unfold parallel to those laid out in “Lawrence of Arabia.”) Unfortunately, it doesn’t get that here. A bit rushed and shortchanged, it’s the rare film that could have used another hour.

But it does have some fine performances, and several huge emotional moments.

Directed by Terry George – a filmmaker who’s taken on the subject of religious prejudice and orchestrated genocide before – the film begins in rural Turkey, where Oscar Isaac is Michael, a young Armenian pledged to marry a rich girl. It’s clear he doesn’t particularly adore her, but knows her dowry will help him pursue his dreams of a medical career.

It’s a refreshingly frank start to a story – whether or not Michael has made this deal solely to help his people and provide for his elderly parents (as he insists) it also makes it clear he’s no romantic. He’s a realist, to whom the most important question is one of survival.

It’s something he is going to have to cling to once the war begins, and his very existence becomes illegal.

As the anti-Armenian actions become more violent, Michael will get some help from Christian Bale’s Chris Meyers, a crusading (if often drunken) Associated Press reporter. And he’ll get some confusion courtesy of his feelings for Chris’ lover and partner, Charlotte le Bon’s Ana, a Sorbonne-educated Armenian artist with some Continental ideas. All will be caught up in battle and bloodshot, prison and pain.

The romantic triangle here feels a little forced (and a little unpleasant – even when Michael forgets, we remember that sad-eyed village girl waiting for him in the mountains). But it does give the film an excuse for several tear-stained partings, and even more sobbing reunions, and provides a human side to this inhuman tragedy. (Isaac, a truly gifted actor, reaches deep for some hugely moving, personal moments.)

Still, what “The Promise” really needs is scale. Scenes of a demolished Armenian village, of innocents being marched out into the desert to die, of a final against-all-odds defense against the Turkish army – these should be truly epic. They need to fill the screen, not just time. Yet George never manages, nor can he quite conjure up the same sort of tense, second-by-second drama that filled his own “Hotel Rwanda,” as lives are measured out in little bribes.

And, occasionally, the movie has the sort of here-come-the-guest-stars casting that used to mar ’60s historical epics, with James Cromwell popping up for two scenes as U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, or Jean Reno given a handful of lines as a French naval officer. Better is Rade Serbedzija, who brings all his considerable, ursine authority to his role as a leader of the Armenian resistance.

Of course that great Serbian actor knows something of splintered nations and senseless violence – as does the great Persian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Michael’s indomitable mother (and, of course, this film’s Irish republican director, who spent years in a British prison).

Yet sadly, for such an important Armenian story, there are few Armenians in the cast – and even fewer Turks, although Robin Swicord’s script includes several sympathetic ones. (The film itself was shot mostly in Malta, and Spain.)

But that goes to the heart of why this film was made and why, despite its flaws, it’s important that it was made.

Because the second tragedy of the Armenian genocide is that many will not call it genocide, will not even allow it to be remembered. Shamefully, even in America (home to a large part of the Armenian diaspora) and in Israel (where the heartbreaking connections are obvious), national politicians avoid the word, for fear of offending Turkey, an important ally which still denies it even happened.

But it did happen. They did survive. And we must remember.

Ratings note: The film contains sexual situations, violence, alcohol abuse.

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