I can’t think of a film in recent memory that’s dealt with the issue of the Armenia Genocide. It’s a period of history I know very little about and one I was interested in seeing portrayed on the big screen. Added to this the draw of a strong cast including the very talented Oscar Isaac and supported by the ever-reliable Christian Bale and I knew this was one to see. (It was either this or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2)
The film is set in Constantinople, then still part of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of the First World War. Armenian apothecary Mikael Boghosian played by Oscar Isaac dreams of becoming a doctor and agrees to become engaged to a woman in village in return for the money that will allow him to train as a medical student. On arriving in Constantinople Mikael is befriended by a fellow medical student and notorious playboy name Emre who has no interest in medicine but whose rich and powerful father has other ideas. The two men unwittingly end up on opposite sides of the what we now know as the Armenian Genocide.
Ana, a French artist who is a dance teacher to his Uncle’s children played by relative newcomer to non-French speaking audiences, Charlotte Le Bon and her lover Chris Myers, an American journalist, played by Christian Bale. What follows is a love-triangle between Mikael, Ana and Meyers and this romantic element is what gives the film its structure. However, this felt terribly flimsy and what you essentially ended up with was Mikael’s character jumping from one incident to another, either leaving or returning to his village, looking for Ana and saving some orphans . So if the plot is starting to sound a little thin on the ground then that’s because it is. With acting heavy weights like Bale and Isaac this had the potential to be a decent movie if only the whole thing were a little more substantial. Perhaps part of the problem was that so much seemed to be going on but very little was happening. It tries to do too much, racing along but without really ever allowing us to digest what’s happening on-screen.
This was further compounded by what seemed to me to be paper-thin characters. They had the potential to be meaty characters but nothing they were never really developed. For example, whilst Mikael is working as a prison camp doing hard labour and helping to build a railway he meets a man who was once a clown and around the campfire we start to learn more about this man but as soon as we begin to invest in the character, he’s killed off in the next scene. Again and again, opportunities to develop characters are missed.
However, the film is visually stunning and scenes of Mikael first arriving in Constantinople pre-WW1 are stunning as is the scene of Emre’s birthday party. Clearly the point is juxtapose life before and after the genocide and contrasts in the colour palate show that.
What I was most disappointed about though, was the handling of the Armenian Genocide. It’s a period of history I know very little about and again I was expecting something more substantial. The scenes on the hilltop as the Armenian’s seek refuge are one of the high points of the film and certainly could have been made more of.
The Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the genocide making the subject matter an important one to chronicle. But this film felt like a missed opportunity. I can’t say I learnt anything new from the film that I didn’t know already. It certainly isn’t a bad film but I still feel there was a better film in there somewhere waiting to come out.