When was it exactly that ‘old school’ usurped ‘old fashioned’? The latter is far more applicable to this sumptuous period piece than the lightweight former, as Terry George’s eye-opening historical drama evades potboiler status but plunges unashamedly into diatribe. We are all aware of the horrors of the Jewish holocaust, but the plight of Turkey’s Armenian population when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and Mustafa Kemal’s modern state was emerging is less well known (and to this day denied by Ankara). Mikael (Oscar Isaac) travels from his village to Constantinople in 1914 to study medicine, paying for the course with the dowry of the girl to whom he is betrothed.
In the big city he meets and falls in love with fellow Armenian Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the companion of Chris (Christian Bale), a hard-drinking American journalist at the coalface of events in the region. He also forms an inseparable friendship with the playboy student Emre (Marwan Kenzari – an actor of weighty screen presence).
The first hour is a bit like Lawrence Durrell-light, as love’s whimsy weaves its intractable web around Mikael, Ana and Chris, their activities beautifully shot by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe – period recreation is so convincing these days. The brutality of ‘ethnic cleansing’ eventually comes to the fore, but it is exposed without George at any point mentioning Islam. That Armenians are Christian and Turks Muslim is an incendiary bomb that is never thrown – instead the emphasis is on the hateful narrowness with which a majority can treat a minority, regardless of religion’s malevolent input.
It is a harrowing, tragic tale that has been repeated over and over, as refugees across the globe continue to seek safe haven from persecution. I knew nothing of the evacuation under heavy fire of thousands of Armenians by the French Navy, but the words uttered by Mikael were more familiar, and they have come to haunt us all in this age of terror: ‘God, I want revenge’. Cheesy but convincing, with intense performances from Isaac and Kenzari.