DIR:Terry George • WRI: Terry George, Robin Swicord PRO: Eric Esrailian, William Horberg, Mike Medavoy • DOP: Javier Aguirresarobe • ED: Steven Rosenblum • DES: Benjamín Fernández • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac
The Promise is the kind of film you didn’t know you wanted but glad that it exists. It’s certainly a very different film for Irish writer/director Terry George whose previous credits include Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father. Set against the backdrop of World War I and the remaining time of the Ottoman Empire, it tells of the infamous Armenian genocide (an estimated 1.2 million were killed by Ottoman soldiers) through the eyes of three protagonists in a terrible love triangle. Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an apothecary’s son in a small village where he aspires to pursue a career as a doctor. When bequeathed a 400 gold dowry in exchange for a daughter’s hand in marriage, he travels to Constantinople where modern society mesmerises him in every turn.
Especially as he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a young Parisian woman who tutors his cousins in their house, and instantly feels attracted to her. Despite her relationship to Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American reporter for the Associated Press, and his commitment to family at home, Mikael and Ana fall in love and try to figure a way to stay together. Their romance is cut short when the Ottoman Empire enter the war and hostilities towards Mikael and his people forces him to return home where safety is always threatened by continuing Turkish troops driving Armenian locals from their homes.
From such a synopsis, it should be clear that the Armenians are second fiddle in their own film to make way for the ongoing romance across many years. When its political intent shows itself and comparisons to the Syrian refugee crisis have been made, it can be quite blunt and unfocused in its attempts. Yes, what we witness are inhumane atrocities, but what does Chris Myers, reporter for the Associated Press, have to say about them to let us clearly know the immorality at work. It becomes almost comical how frequent Christian Bale enters a scene explaining his job before making some insightful and sardonic commentary about government.
As a political film, it certainly fails, never fully allowing its central focus of Armenian genocide actually be the focus. If there was any worthy comparison to make, it would be Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate but with all the fat trimmed out. This is both good and bad in many ways. What’s good is that it captures the mood of an epic romance similar to the films of David Lean and any fan of Doctor Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter will certainly get some enjoyment from The Promise’s story of love and conflict.
Oscar Isaac delivers a terrific performance, demonstrating why he’s so quickly rose to fame, while Charlotte Le Bon showcases a lot of potential following on from Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk and The Hundred-Foot Journey alongside Helen Mirren. The only weakness from its cast stems from Christian Bale, who underwhelms in a rather uninteresting role, but has enough presence as an actor to be at least compelling.
It seems quite a shame that for the most expensive film to be made about the Armenian genocide (a tragedy the Turkish government still refuse to acknowledge), the film never feels like it knows what to say about the events. Anyone interested in the tragedy should seek out 2015’s Map of Salvation or watch Henrik Malyan’s Nahapet for a more insightful experience. However, for those with an acquired taste for epic romance films from yesteryear, The Promise should recall fond memories of a genre rarely seen in cinema today.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Promise is released 28th April 2017