The press notes mention Schindler’s List and The Killing Fields and the director is Terry George, who did Hotel Rwanda, and it is generally agreed that whenever genocide is mentioned, attention must be fully paid.
This film has been made specifically to focus on the Armenian genocide in Turkey during the First World War, an atrocity that has been largely ignored by history books and certainly by cinema – I can only recall Atom Egoyan’s Cannes entry Ararat touching on the subject, but in a markedly different way.
George’s approach is more traditional in cinematic war movie terms, focusing on an epic romance torn apart by the ravages of war, and starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and France’s Charlotte Le Bon (the sort of actress you get when Marion Cotillard is too expensive). Subtlety is not its attraction, nor its intention, although it has all the trappings of prestigious heritage cinema, which occasionally hamper the impact and the seriousness.
Isaac plays an Armenian medical student Mikal Boghossian, come to the cosmopolitan capital of Constantinople from his simple country village. Despite being “betrothed” to a local girl, he falls in love with a beguiling Paris-trained music tutor Anna (Le Bon) who in turn is already in a relationship with a drunken American news reporter Chris, played by Cristian Bale in a linen suit. They all go drinking absinthe and belly dancing. Then the Germans arrive.
So, this love triangle then has to withstand the onset of war, which all happens very suddenly as soon as Turkey joins in in 1914, and, almost overnight, the Armenian minorities are rounded up, beaten up and secretly dispatched by the Fez-wearing Turkish militia.
The Ottoman empire’s hatred of the Armenians isn’t explored. “They are a tumour in our midst,” says one leader, without saying why. Meanwhile, Bale’s Chris drives to the countryside to witness whole villages razed and inhabitants marched out.
Mikal is swiftly imprisoned in a labour camp – where Tom Hollander contributes a most unnecessary comic cameo – but escapes and attempts a daring rescue on a train where Armenian arms beckon him in supplication, images familiar from Holocaust movies. (The film is perhaps too intent on using Holocaust imagery – Kristallnacht, camps, trains – to mark out these atrocities as a Holocaust of its own.)
Yet all Mikal wants to do is make it back home to check on his parents. Well, that, and find Anna again, but first, he must check on his parents and the family cow.
The second part of the film involves our intrepid threesome escorting orphans and joining some kind of resistance on a coastal town, culminating in a dramatic rescue by a French warship.
All of which is tastefully done, maybe too much so. I wanted a bit more conflict and fight, if only between the lovers, more blood. But you can’t fault the ambition nor the inspiration and intention, ie to give the Armenian people the big public moment their tragedy clearly merits, and one would never want to belittle that, even if the Turkish government, according to a post-script on the movie, to this day refuses to recognise what happened.
For all the efforts and tears of its stars and for all the horrors wrought on millions of innocent people, this film isn’t quite up to the magnitude of being a monument.