Tales of romance and revenge  

by
28 April 2017

Stephen Brown sees current film releases

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IT IS reckoned that 75 per cent of people live with severe restrictions on religious freedom, and worse. The Promise, “inspired by true events”, depicts the fate of Armenian Christians a century ago. The film has only a 12A Certificate, and much is left to our imagination. But if an artist is dexterous enough to convey the horror and yet spare us the details, so be it.

The First World War accelerates the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its government, looking for scapegoats, seizes on Christians in the Anatolian provinces. Violence, death marches, and massacres give way to genocide between 1915 and 1923, and 1.5 million Armenians are slaughtered. It is a crime that Turkey still hasn’t acknowledged.

The director, Terry George, dealt with a more recent genocide in Hotel Rwanda (2004). The new film chronicles a similar pattern as refugees from ethnic cleansing flee for their lives, in a clear parallel with today’s boat people braving the Mediterranean. What are the social and political circumstances that lend themselves to the eruption of such barbarities erupting?

That is a question that films find hard to tell stories about: there are too many characters and issues involved. The Promise follows the well-trodden route of concentrating on just a few. The fictional love story here even takes precedence over real-life events in the title of the film.

Mikael (Oscar Isaac) hales from Siroun, southern Turkey, and is promised to Maral (Angela Sarafyan). He is in Constantinople, training to be a doctor in his home village. An American photo-journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), has come to the country to cover the political situation, but also because he is in love with Ana (Charlotte le Bon), an Armenian artist he has met. The narrative device in use here is the eternal triangle.

When Mikael meets Ana, their shared Armenian heritage sparks an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry with Chris. From there on, the film plays in the style of Doctor Zhivago or Titanic: epic events in danger of being overshadowed, if not ignored, by a love story.

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Only a few other films have tackled the Armenian genocide. Ararat (directed by Atom Egoyan) and Fatih Akin’s The Cut are among the most recent. We should therefore be grateful to Terry George for drawing this monumental tragedy to our attention in a mainstream film. But does it do justice to what occurred? Obviously, not; nor could any other single film.

The Promise succeeds in reminding us how cynical political manoeuvring affects and infects ordinary people. It portrays outstanding bravery and love in the face of heinous crimes. For instance, a character is clearly modelled on Jakob Künzler, the deacon who rescued thousands of Armenian orphans. The film is shakier on revealing how hitherto good-hearted Muslims can rapidly be turned into Christian persecutors. The mysterious nature of evil remains unexplored.

 

AS WITH the 19th-century novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, on which the film Lady Macbeth (Unclassified) is based, no such character exists. The Shakespearean reference is to a woman who murders those standing in the way of her ambitions. The same goes for the Shostakovich opera and Andrzej Wajda’s earlier film.

Lady Macbeth, set in north-east England in 1865, begins with a close-up of a bride as the congregation sings Catherine Winkworth’s newly published hymn “Praise to the Lord the Almighty, the King of Creation”. Katherine Lester is played by Florence Pugh, previously seen in The Falling (Arts, 24 April 2015). She has been given, along with a piece of land “not fit enough to graze a cow on”, to a contumelious man (Paul Hilton) twice her age. He confines her to the interior of the family manor house (Lambton Castle, County Durham), where she must be content with reading her prayer book. He doesn’t even have sex with her, unlike Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), who works in the stables.

At first sight, this man of colour is as boorish as the husband who has gone to attend to an explosion at Amble Colliery. Sebastian and fellow-workers are violating one of the black maids, Anna (Naomi Ackie), stripped naked for a game. Katherine intervenes, only to be swooped up herself by Sebastian.

This is when the film begins to lack credibility. The conventions of such a hierarchical society are too easily broken. As becomes too apparent later, Katherine is tarred with the same authoritarian brush as her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank), husband, and other oppressors. Sebastian’s insolence would not have been tolerated. Neither would he subsequently have forced himself on Katherine. Alice Birch’s script and William Oldroyd’s direction require more subtlety.

It is soon after this that any sympathy for Katherine diminishes as she and her lover do terrible deeds. When the priest (Cliff Burnett), concerned for her “health and salvation”, visits she gives him short shrift. Either Katherine has no use for God-talk or fears it would remind her that she is on the road to perdition. What began as an Ibsenist proto-feminist parable changes course. This particular “doll’s house” is without redemption. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is deliberately modelled on Vilhelm Hamershøi’s muted paintings of the interiors where people, women in particular, and what they do is all but invisible.

Audiences need to leave the cinema having empathised with someone and, for my part, that is Anna, not Katherine. She is struck dumb midway through the film by what she witnesses. Much of her subsequent performance has echoes of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42-52). Unlike the book, the film keeps such biblical allusions only implicit. Without Leskov’s theological underpinnings, the film rarely transcends the Gothic revenge-movie genre. Lady Macbeth is at its best when showing how notions of class, race, and gender are manipulated to justify oppression.

 

Damaris Media, in co-operation with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has produced an online study guide for individuals and church groups on The Promisewww.csw.org.uk/thepromise

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