Terry George’s The Promise stars Oscar Isaac as Mikael, an Armenian medical student who falls in love in Constantinople just as the Armenian Genocide begins in the Ottoman Empire. Lee and Aisling review.
When it comes to softening the impact of a failure, nothing stings more than the inherent potential in having a noble intention. An over two-hour epic tackling a human atrocity that still continues to go unaddressed by the guilty party – it’s the Armenian genocide, if you haven’t guessed – with a classic-style romance to tie it all together. All the footnotes of great cinema in one pitch: an established screenwriter/director, some terrific casting, a sizeable budget, and some genuine attempts to capture a terrible period in human history – that it all went so wrong must be something of a feat.
For the main culprit of The Promise’s shortcomings, we need look not much further than its drab screenplay. Not quite a surrogate’s tale of the genocide, not quite a full-on romance, we’re introduced to about ten main characters within the first five minutes of the film and, from them, we seemingly decide to stay with the most passive for the entire movie to ensure we get neither a strong tale of love in desperate times or an account of heroism during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Oscar Isaac does what he can to imbue Mikael with some form of nervous energy, but the story drags him along from set-piece to set-piece (like a sacking of Constantinople, a concentration camp for Armenians, a mass grave, etc, etc) with only sheer happenstance and the blandest, least interesting of love against duty stories to keep him going.
We’re supposed to get on board with a love triangle that doesn’t feel confident enough to have any one of its participants play the villain. Christian Bale’s Chris and Charlotte Le Bon’s Ana are together, until Mikael sways Ana with his passivity and they fall in love instantly, which should lead to either Chris being jilted or Ana feeling guilty/aggressive, correct? Instead, we tread carefully over anything that might really resemble drama, with threads like Mikael’s pending engagement and Chris’ alcoholism being dropped the moment they’re raised like foregone conclusions rather than obstacles, leaving the connective tissue of the movie feeling like one prolonged distraction.
A distraction that becomes all the more tedious as you endure generalised historical facts vaguely dotted together in a misguided attempt at immersing the audience within the atrocity backdrop. Our survivors meander through a Wikipedia page of events which impacts something of a broad account of the massacre, but most significant acts are used only to further the drama of our characters, ironically robbing the horror of much of their impact as our heroes blankly react to the loss of people we never grow to know. The film’s aversion to violence feels like misdirection, a move to gather a Critical Fiction crowd, yet the romance is too boring to even hold their attention.
Things look even weirder under the microscope – the American arc that sees the journalist accused of sitting on the sidelines join the fight, at a time when Americans were pretty heavily reporting the crisis? The random jab at the hesitant French? The cameo Jewish character who makes a significant political stand against the Turkish? It’s almost Emmerichian in its blatant repurposing of history, or like a land-bound Titanic without any of the low-octane intrigue.
The Promise is a mess, and that’s a shame, because there is something there in the melodrama that could make this, at the very least, passable Sunday evening viewing. However, there’s no information being translated for mass audiences that couldn’t be read in the first line of a news article, and for that information you will have to spend a sizeable amount of time with template romantic characters who only muster the will to be romantic when their attention isn’t required walking places and feeling bad. How surprisingly ignoble.
Director Terry George delivers a haunting, sobering dramatization of one of history’s most shameful and darkest secrets, diluted by a soapy, unimaginative love-triangle.
Set in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Mikael (Oscar Isaac), a talented and aspiring doctor, leaves his small hometown for medical school, with a promise to return to his fiancé, Maral. Whilst staying in Constantinople with his aunt and uncle, he meets the beautiful, spirited Ana, and the two bond over their shared Armenian heritage, to the chagrin of her American reporter boyfriend, Chris (Christian Bale).
Inevitably, WWI subsequently breaks out, providing the Ottoman Empire with the cover for the Armenian Genocide.
The film’s strength lies with George’s depiction of the Genocide itself. Without needing to rely on graphic gore, the audience is thrown headfirst into the horrors and atrocities of the Genocide. The Armenian Genocide is undoubtedly a story that deserves to be heard after spending so long in the murky corners of history.
When the focus is not on the lacklustre romance, The Promise captures moments of real tragedy, heroism and human defiance, though it too often loses sight of the horrible reality anchoring it in history. Mikael and Ana do not so much provide a face for the Armenian Genocide, as distract from it. The invented love triangle between Ana, Mikael and Chris never feels truly believable, and falls flat when juxtaposed against the atrocities of Genocide.
By the time Mikael is reunited with Ana and Chris, the audience has been exposed to plenty of horror, including a suffocating scene of Armenian people crushed into a train car for ‘relocation’. Having seen men, women and children mercilessly killed and entire families wiped from history forever, it is a baffling ask for the audience to care about the doomed romance.
The story never fully commits to either of its two narratives; George gambles by weaving a lacklustre romance into a story about Genocide, and it is a credit to the actors involved that they nearly pull it off. Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac once again prove themselves to be some of the finest actors of their generation. Isaacs in particular provides a magnificent turn as defiant Mikael.
The Promise does not delve too deeply into the ‘whys’ of the Genocide, but perhaps that is the point; there’s not much resolve we’re likely to get there besides more survival. The story concludes with an older Mikael’s assertion that the Armenian’s revenge would be their survival (“We are still here”), alongside the harrowing message that today’s Turkish Government refuse to acknowledge the Genocide ever happened.
It’s an important message in an unimportant film.
[The Promise hits theatres in the UK Friday April 28th]