“The Promise” is a $100 million dollar, sprawling historical drama centered around the 1915 Armenian genocide — the first major genocide of the 20th century and one the Turkish government continues to deny. While it relays, through its setting, an important and often neglected part of history, the film fails to make the emotional impact required by its subject matter.
Helmed by “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George, “The Promise” follows Armenian medical student Mikael (Oscar Isaac) as he leaves his idyllic village in the countryside to attend school in Constantinople, after which he is promised to return home and marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan of “Westworld”) in an arranged marriage. While studying, he falls in love with his host family’s hired tutor Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is betrothed to Associated Press reporter Christopher Myers (Christian Bale), setting up a love triangle that dogs the film for the rest of its run time.
It is with this setup that the Armenian genocide begins, as Armenian men are rounded up for enlistment in WWI and the Ottoman government begins marching entire villages into the Syrian desert. From this point onward, the three primary characters are repeatedly separated and rejoined at the whim of the turbulent reality surrounding them until the plot reconnects them at a real historical event — the battle of Musa Dagh — at the climax of the film.
One would think that the triviality of the initial love triangle — which lacked chemistry between Ana and both male leads, anyway — would be washed away by the emotional horror of its surroundings. Unfortunately, the film chooses to frame the story exclusively around this love triangle and adopts a “love must triumph all” mentality that consistently drags the emotional core of the film away from the tragedy of the genocide. It also leaves the story feeling stale and predictable; a plot centered on a rarely told genocide would be unpredictable and engaging. A love story, no matter where it is set, almost never is.
Ultimately, the decision to orient the film in this way — an attempt to replicate classic films such as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia” that lands closer to the groan-worthy aesthetic of “Titanic” — leaves the film with a sort of glossy finish, as if it were the Disney Channel version of the real story.
Exasperating that problem is the film’s PG-13 take on what was a very R-rated time period. There’s a realism and grit missing from “The Promise” that is very present in George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” and it hurts the audience’s ability to connect to the horror of the crisis. Films such as “Schindler’s List” and “Hotel Rwanda” are not saturated in violence, but both films absolutely utilize the freedom of the R rating to portray the violence that occurred starkly and graphically in the moments when it is needed to make a point. It is a valiant attempt to make the film accessible to a younger audience, but as far as an educational framing is concerned, many schools actually show R-rated films such as “Schindler’s List” in history classes, with parental approval; an authentically expressed violent act can be more educational than a censored one.
Frustratingly, the film never needed the love triangle. It already had a triangle in it — the one between Christopher, Mikael and their mutual friend Emre (Marwan Kenzari), a Turk who uses his influence to save Mikael more than once. These three characters form the basis of a much stronger triangle dynamically, in which, despite their motivations being disparate, the characters hold bonds of friendship with each other and need each other. One wishes, while watching “The Promise,” that the film had been built around them instead and dispensed with the romance.
Regardless, “The Promise” is still an important film. It is the most expensive portrayal of the Armenian genocide to date, far outspending the few other films that have been made on the subject, and the controversy that it has generated — the film has more than 61,000 one-star reviews on IMDb, despite having had only several public screenings — demonstrates the degree to which the Turkish government is still insistent on organizing targeted backlash against the subject. The film is also part of a philanthropic endeavor, and any profits from it will be donated to charity — not a common occurrence. In that way, despite its constructional weaknesses, the film’s intentions are good, and hopefully its effect will be as well.
“The Promise” opens tomorrow at Shattuck Cinemas.
Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].