UK Release Date: 28th April 2017
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Terry George
Writer: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Rade Šerbedžija, Tom Hollander
Synopsis: A medical student’s studies are halted as the First World War breaks out and the Ottoman Empire begins the mass relocation of Armenian people that would become one of the most shocking atrocities in history.
The Armenian Genocide, in which more than one and a half million Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire, remains a controversial period of history given Turkey’s continued refusal to classify the killings as a genocide. It is woefully under-discussed by many and has been left largely untouched in cinema, outside of Atom Egoyan‘s 2002 film Ararat, which approached the events using a story-within-a-story structure. The Promise, from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George, aims to tell the story through the medium of a broad Hollywood romance. It’s an elegant, honourable movie that, for all of its flaws, is a compelling take on a difficult historical tale.
Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is a medical student, who travels from his small Armenian village to Constantinople in order to study. Staying with a wealthy relative, Mikael meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and her boyfriend – American reporter Chris (Christian Bale). Tensions in the area between Turks and Armenians rise as the First World War breaks out and Mikael’s people soon find themselves forced into labour camps or marched in groups towards the Syrian border.
The Promise is a film that clearly needed to be made. It tells the story of the atrocities to which the Armenian people were subjected with visceral and often horrifying impact. One scene, in which a pile of bodies is seen dumped at the side of a river, lands with real emotion and power. It’s when it has its eyes on tragedy that George’s film is at its best. Through the prism of Bale’s reporter character, we are able to understand the historical significance of these events, which are still not widely known about today.
Unfortunately, The Promise is predominantly a film about a big Hollywood love triangle. The sense of peril is always in the background, but the script devotes an enormous amount of time to the rather soapy issues unfolding between the three central performers. This feels like a sad and unnecessary move to make the film more commercial and palatable, often detracting from the more important and indeed engaging narrative about the historical events taking place away from the petty romantic squabbles.
That’s not to say that there are any deficiencies in any of the performances. Le Bon and Bale, in particular, bring real complexity and emotion to their roles. All three of the central characters have an unusual relationship to the historical events and Bale, especially, is positioned as an outsider trying to do the right thing in amongst an openly hostile society. Many of the most dramatic moments in The Promise occur as a result of Bale’s character’s journey, which has a consistent feel of tension and risk.
It is these moments that mark The Promise out as a strong historical drama with a real sense of how important its story is. It would be wrong to criticise the film for being accessible, but the soapy aspects do occasionally overwhelm the narrative, particularly when it comes to the dramatically overwrought final moments. The Promise is a film that’s constantly battling between its desire to be commercial and its desperate need to educate. Mostly, it knows what it’s doing.
Pop or Poop?
Strong performances and a real sense of historical responsibility are enough to make The Promise a compelling and entertaining film. There’s no doubt that, for many viewers, this will be their first exposure to the Armenian Genocide and the film is a responsible, evocative telling of that vital story.
Its central love triangle is syrupy and melodramatic but, if that’s what it takes to get bums on seats for a tale of true historical significance, it’s a price worth paying.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.