April 21, 2017
There are moments in history– true tragedies– that are difficult to process and understand. One such event is the Armenian Genocide that took place during World War I and that provides the setting for The Promise. This isn’t writer/director Terry George’s first time tackling such a topic in a Hollywood film; Hotel Rwanda resulted in three Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay. George’s previous success, however, makes The Promise all the more disappointing due to its severe lack of focus. Instead of delivering a film that stands along the pantheon of cinematic explorations of historical tragedies– Schindler’s List, The Pianist– the insistence of a romantic subplot throughout The Promise detracts in terms of tone and narrative focus.
In 1914, as the largest world powers fight amongst themselves, a young apothecary named Mikael (Oscar Isaac), dreams of becoming a doctor to better serve his village. In order to gain the funds to afford medical school, Mikael arranges a marriage with local girl Maral (Angela Sarafyan), whose dowry would support his schooling for the two years at the Imperial Medical School in distant Constantinople. There, Mikael falls in love with spirited Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is in the city with her boyfriend, Chris (Christian Bale), a reporter investigating the local Turkish government. As racial tensions between native Turks and Armenian immigrants escalate, Mikael, Ana, and Chris are forced to put aside their complicated interpersonal relationship as they struggle to preserve an entire race of people.
Visually speaking, George applies great technical skill to The Promise, creating a mostly impressive cinematic experience. The bulk of the cinematography deftly evokes the grandeur of Turkey and its people. Sweeping landscapes conjure a world that is exotic and mysterious, while the captivating set design anchors the reality of the period to make it tangible. As the story progresses from romantic period piece to historical drama, a stark contrast appears, paling the bright colors of Turkey as various horrors are inflicted upon the Armenian people. In these moments, George switches to a free-hand documentary style with the intent of placing the audience in the thick of what’s happening to Mikael. This is a clever camera trick, yet its jarring application only serves to rip audiences out of the story. The technique feels like the use of style over substance; a mirror of the movie’s overstuffed narrative.
The love story may be an attempt to appeal to a wider, general audience or as a means of boosting a story believed to be historically overlooked, but doing so causes The Promise to suffer. The love triangle forces a dramatic shift in tone and focus. On the one hand, there’s a tender, adventure-filled romance. On the other, there’s the attempted extermination of an entire people. To balance the darkness The Promise frequently seeks out lighter moments in its already unnecessary romance narrative. Jokes of ugly wives and silly friendship are fine when telling a period romance, but they seem drastically out of place as people are fighting for their lives.
Ultimately, all this distracts from what The Promise is really should be about: the promise of the Armenian people. The disappointment peaks in the coda, an unnecessary addition to lessen a subtle and deeply satisfying ending with a self-aggrandizing monologue. Any film that services itself before the characters moves itself closer to being a cash-grab, especially one using the Armenian Genocide as a backdrop.
What The Promise does have working for it and what will keep audiences both interested and talking about it for some time is the high-caliber cast. Isaac’s superbly grounded performance is absolutely devastating at Mikael’s worst and exuberant at his best. Bale surprises no one by making the seemingly subdued Chris, a character who’s both abstinent and inquisitive, deeply relatable in his search for the truth. Le Bon is not as well known in the states, but that’s going to change soon. Her performance makes Ana far more than a love interest but a capable, driven, fierce woman whose choices resonate long after the film is over.
The story of the Armenian Genocide is truly enough to carry a film on its own. Despite its shortcomings, The Promise will at the very least help this tragic event find its way into the mainstream discussions, delivering the real promise of this story, which is about living, about moving on, about continuing. In that, The Promise may make good.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5