Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including War Atrocities, Violence and Disturbing Images, and for some Sexuality
Directed by: Terry George
Written by: Terry George & Robin Swicord
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Serbedzija & James Cromwell
THE PROMISE is the first major big-budget film to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide. This atrocity was committed by the Turkish government and led to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. For numerous mind-boggling reasons, there are many Armenian Genocide deniers in this world and they did not want this movie to be made. Just look at the film’s current IMDB rating and where a majority of the 1-star votes are coming from (Turkey). Taken on its own cinematic merits, THE PROMISE is a deeply emotional, powerful historical epic. The film is not without some problems, but remains a worthwhile experience all the same.
Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian who’s using his engagement dowry to become a doctor. In the grand city of Constantinople, Mikael develops a crush on Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian. The problem is that Mikael is currently engaged and Ana already has a boyfriend in American news reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). The political climate begins to change in Constantinople though and World War I is rising. Soon, Turks begin to savagely arrest/kill Armenians, using the war as a cover to systematically wipe the Armenian people off the earth. Mikael, Ana, and Chris find themselves caught in the middle of this mass tragedy.
THE PROMISE functions as two different movies. On the one hand, it’s a very effective history lesson about the Armenian Genocide. Many historians have already praised this film for its accuracy and there’s something impressive about that alone. Director/writer Terry George previously directed a powerful genocide drama in HOTEL RWANDA and was a great choice to make another drama about one of the first modern genocides. This film shows the audience just enough for them to realize what is happening to the Armenian people and to what extent. We don’t need to see countless prisoner camps, lots of massacres, and many death marches into the desert. Single moments that surmise each of these horrific factors go a long way and the script wisely doesn’t exploit its sensitive subject matter.
On the other hand, THE PROMISE also tells the story of a love-triangle that happens to take place during the Armenian Genocide. Romance and passion drive the three main characters forward. One might argue that, at certain points, this decently-constructed love story moves things along more than the actual real-life tragedy occurring in the background. This doesn’t happen a lot, but there are corny clichés that occasionally make their way into the mix. The war-based love story angle works, but to a far lesser extent than the fact-based Armenian Genocide drama that’s also being told. The epitome of this complaint comes in one needlessly sad scene that seems to be thrown in because plenty of other historical romances also have this plot point.
Oscar Isaac, one of the best rising actors of his generation, plays Mikael with heartbreaking sincerity. There isn’t a single emotion from him that doesn’t feel genuine, even when the story thrusts him into the path of clichés. Christian Bale plays Chris Myers, a fictional character based on a few journalists that covered the Armenian Genocide. The moments in which Myers risks his life to get the atrocious news to the public are heart-pounding to watch. Still, Bale doesn’t have much believable chemistry with the lovely Charlotte Le Bon (who also starred in last year’s underrated historical thriller ANTHROPOID). Le Bon’s Ana is more of a glorified supporting character in the proceedings. She drives the love-story forward, but Bale and Isaac are equal important in both stories.
THE PROMISE’s overall look feels epic. The story spans across various locations and the cinematography is beautiful. With a 90 million dollar budget, it’s clear that Terry Jones threw every penny he had at the screen. It’s upsetting that this film won’t perform better at the box office, because it wasn’t put out during the Oscar-friendly awards season and instead is being released in April (to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide’s first recorded date). The music in this film is powerful too, but never overtakes the emotion being brought to the screen by the performances and the writing. High production values really help cement this story’s large scope and believable visuals.
THE PROMISE isn’t likely to garner the same amount of critical acclaim and financial success that HOTEL RWANDA or other WWI/WWII dramas have received. The film very much succeeds at being a tragic drama about the Armenian Genocide, but occasionally shoots itself in the foot with the clichéd love triangle plot. THE PROMISE’s performances, visuals, music, and a majority of scenes are great in many respects. However, those darn clichés and occasional missteps into corniness keep the entire film from reaching its full potential. Even with those flaws, THE PROMISE is definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared to feel very depressed afterwards, because World War I also had a Holocaust.