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The Promise

The extermination of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which Turkey has repeatedly refused to acknowledge as genocide, provides a turbulent backdrop to Terry George's earnest period romance. Opening in the splendour of 1914 Anatolia, The Promise contrives a love triangle between two Armenians and an American as the prism through which to refract sickening images of barbarism during the First World War. Writer-director George, who was Oscar nominated for his riveting 2004 picture Hotel Rwanda, conjures shocking tableaux like a river bed cluttered with dozens of lifeless men, women and children, their blood seeping into the fast-moving waters. "Our revenge will be to survive," the stoic heroine tells her lover in response to the senseless loss. The scope of George's vision, with its panoramic vistas, expertly choreographed riots and battle scenes on perilous mountain terrain, recalls sweeping 1960s epics such as Doctor Zhivago, which captured the cost of war through the eyes of lovers caught in the crossfire. The Promise doesn't possess the emotional depth of David Lean's masterpiece, and the 133-minute running time feels padded, but there are moments of heart-wrenching beauty and brutality concealed within the pedestrian narrative. Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is an apothecary in the village of Sirun and he yearns to study medicine in Constantinople. Unable to fund the three-year course himself, Mikael agrees to marry his neighbour's daughter Maral (Angela Sarafyan) in exchange for a dowry of 400 gold coins that will finance studies in the capital. Separated from his bride-to-be, Mikael befriends Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), whose father is a powerful figure in the Turkish military, and he falls head over heels in love with his uncle's houseguest, Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian. "You make me feel like I'm at home," Ana tells Mikael sweetly. Unfortunately, Mikael is already promised to Maral and Ana has a partner, an American journalist called Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who is reporting on escalating tensions in Turkey for the Associated Press. Eventually Mikael returns home to the mountains to fulfil his marital pledge and forget about Ana. "Whatever happened, that was another life," counsels his mother Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo). "You told me that you would grow to love Maral, and you will." The Promise is a sluggish rifle through pages of disputed recent history, which aligns itself with the Armenians as they search for an escape from their war-ravaged nation. Isaac and Le Bon catalyse simmering screen chemistry, while Bale casually embodies a western observer with a conscience, who defiantly defends his actions: "Without reporters, the Armenian people would disappear, and no one would know." Through the lens of George's picture, one harrowing version of events comes into focus, very slowly.