The Promise – Film Review

Director: Terry George

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale

Release Date: Out Now

With a seemingly endless procession of Holocaust related films in the Hollywood archive, it’s a little astonishing that The Promise marks the first instance of a production that deals with the 1915-1917 Ottoman genocide of Armenians.
Indeed, writer/director Terry George links the general historical whitewashing of these events with those of the Nazi’s crimes. “Because of the way it had disappeared from history, Hitler used that almost as an excuse for his generals as he was ordering them into war, saying, ‘Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?’”

Although dealing with a harrowing chapter of history, the story centres around a love triangle that develops between Armenian medical student Mikael (Isaac), an American journalist based in Paris named Chris (Bale) and his Armenian-born lover, Ana (Le Bon).
This romantic intrigue is set against the backdrop of international conflict as Turkey prepares to enter World War 1, and also domestic unrest in the country as the government begin the forced migration and slaughter of 1.5 million mostly Christian Armenians.

The film opens in the Armenian village of Sirun, where Mikael is marrying his neighbour’s daughter. He receives a dowry of 400 gold coins, which he uses to travel to Constantinople to attend medical college. Here, Mikael meets Armenian Ana and the romantic partner of an American journalist, Chris Myers.
What transpires is a familiar love triangle convention that one suspects early on will end in tears. When war breaks out, Mikael avoids conscription to the Ottoman army through a medical student exemption but soon finds himself caught up in the ethnic cleansing programme of the Ottoman regime.

The three protagonists cross paths throughout the film as Ana works for the Red Cross and Christopher reporting the atrocities committed by the Turkish military on the Armenians. An amusing, whistle-stop exposition of the political nuances that have led Turkey to war are provided by a drunken Bale, in the process insulting German diplomats and military leaders.

Notwithstanding some questionable blue screen backdrops of Constantinople bay, the film is beautifully shot. Director George has described the picture a “big old-fashioned love story in mode of Dr Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter.”
At times the film does evokes the aesthetics of a David Lean production but it is the romantic elements of the plot where the film unravels. George has pedigree in dealing with religious conflict on film, having written a trilogy of screenplays dealing with “The Troubles” (In the Name of the Father, Some Mother’s Son, The Boxer) and also genocide in Hotel Rwanda.

Whereas these films avoided romantic sentimentality, The Promise attempts to balance historical commentary with the love story genre and it is here where the film fails spectacularly. The three participants perform their roles admirably, considering the disjointed character scripting and bloated plot. However, due to discontinuous screen time together, they are never given a chance to interact in a coherent fashion.

The film works quite effectively when depicting the horrors of genocide, but it is the entirely unnecessary love story which consistently disrupts proceedings and it is never convincing enough to invest in emotionally. The stated intention of the director was that the historical events would serve as subplot to the romance, but in fact the opposite of this is true.
The character of Chris feels entirely superfluous and implausible and one wonders if perhaps the film would have been served best simply with a romance between Ana or Mikhael or even none at all. George never effectively grapples with tying the storylines of the three characters together, resulting in a muddled and confused outcome.

There is a far greater film in the 2 hours and 13 minutes’ run-time somewhere and one suspects an excising of the romantic angle would have produced a more polished feature. With Hotel Rwanda, George has proven that distressing subject matter can be handled capably, and without the pointless window dressing of a ménage à trois.

Score 3/5
Written by Cian O’ Donnell

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