There are moments in history – true tragedies – that are difficult to process and understand. These moments must not be allowed to disappear from our collective global memories. One such horrific event is the Armenian Genocide, an event that took place during World War I and one which the Turkish government continues to disavow. The genocide is used as the setting for The Promise. This isn’t writer/director Terry George’s first time tackling such a topic in a Hollywood film as his handling of the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi in Hotel Rwanda resulted in three Oscar nominations, including Best Screenplay. This, 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, Mikael Boghosian (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 Constantinople with her boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), a reporter investigating the local Turkish government for the Associated Press. As racial tensions between native Turks and Armenian immigrants escalate throughout the region, 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 grandeur of Turkey and its people; implanting a notion from the start that Mikael is embarking on a grand adventure similar to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark or Apocalypse Now. 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; effectively drawing the audience into this place in history. As the story progresses from romantic period to historical drama, a stark contrast appears, paling the bright colors of Turkey as various horrors are inflicted upon the Armenian people. There is not a single thing in frame without purpose or intention, which, when used properly, is completely stunning. However, George also frequently uses 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 does nothing more than rip audiences out of the story as they adjust to the new visual style. Clever is only good when it’s effective in conveying intent to the audience. Here, it feels more like the use of style over substance; something the narrative is overfull of.
Style only takes an audience so far in cinema. If the intended purpose is to use style to tell a story, there needs to be something underlying in The Promise to maintain relevance. The love story inserted into The Promise may be an attempt to appeal to a wider, general audience or as a means of boosting a story believed to be irrelevant, but doing so causes The Promise to suffer. The love triangle forces a dramatic shift in tone and, frequently, a shift in focus. On the one hand, there’s a tender, adventure-filled romance. On the other, the attempted extermination of an entire people. Some lightness is almost certainly required to help balance the darkness and to provide the audience shelter for a few moments from the reality of the main story. The Promise frequently seeks those moments in the 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. The persistence to include a romance within the narrative seems similarly out of place. Not a single instance of the romance feels necessary for the story as each of the four main characters would make the exact same choices to defend and protect each other throughout the story. Recognizing this both highlights the nobility of each character and the utter irrelevance of including this subplot. Enough tragedy happens to Mikael and Ana that adding a will-they-won’t-they element becomes rapidly useless the further into the story. The persistence of the romantic plot creates a perpetual drag on the larger story, distracting from what The Promise is really about: the promise of the Armenian people. Most disappointing is the coda, an unnecessary addition to an ending that is, itself, deeply satisfying, trades in its subtlety for a self-aggrandizing monologue that serves not the characters or the story, but serves itself. Any film that services itself before the characters, especially one using the Armenian Genocide as a backdrop, reduces itself to a cash-grab, rather than a true honoring of the victims and survivors of the tragedy.
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 providing excellent performances from start to finish. Isaac’s performance is absolutely devastating at Mikael’s worst and exuberant at his best. You can feel every joy, every heartbreak in a performance that’s not only superbly grounded, it’s absolutely palatable. Though it’s early in the year yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if this lead to an Oscar nomination. Le Bon and Bale also deliver wonderful performances. 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 – as women are often relegated in this type of film – but a capable, driven, fierce woman whose choices resonate long after the film is over.
Though the story of the Armenian Genocide is truly enough to carry a film on its own, at the very least, this story will find its way into the mainstream and perhaps be remembered. The real promise is about living, about moving on, about continuing. In that, The Promise may make good.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.