Starring: Oscar Issac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
Director: Terry George
Running Time: 135 mins
Synopsis: Armenian medical student Mikeal (Issac) travels to Constantinople to study just as the First World War is beginning. There he meets the beautiful Ana (Le Bon) whom he falls for, unfortunately she is in a relationship with the American photojournalist Chris (Bale) who is in Turkey to document the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people. A monstrous event that will tear them all apart.
It is a move dating back to the cinema of World War 2 to marry real world events to fictional stories, generally romantic tales of star-crossed lovers torn apart by the man shipping off to fight the bad guys. Slightly melodramatic but always effective. However things become a little more uncomfortable when these fictional characters are dropped into historical moments that are too horrifying and tragic. It undermines the power when the audience is constantly thrust into soapy moments that never happened. This is the predominant issue with Terry George’s The Promise.
In late 1914 just as the First World War is kicking into gear, the Turkish government used their new German alliance to begin a campaign of persecution against the Armenian population. Seen as a lesser species and a blight against the Ottoman Empire they are subject to a mass genocidal culling. A horrific moment in history that is ever more devastating due to the Turkish government still denying their role in this atrocity to this day. Director Terry George, who is no stranger to real-world hidden atrocities after his moving retelling of the Rwandan genocide in Hotel Rwanda, certainly uses his very generous budget ($90million) to evocatively capture early 20th Century Turkey. Into this handsomely mounted period piece steps lead character Mikael. A noble man, the Promise of the title refers to him agreeing to marry a local girl from his town in return for funds to train as a doctor. Oscar Issac gives him a warmth and a vulnerability that is endearing, if a little bland. There isn’t much in the way of darkness to him, with the film determined to portray his internal debate over the two women he is torn between nothing but noble and unselfish. It is charming thanks to the work of the actors involved, but with all the horrors going on around him it cannot help but feel a little emotionally childish.
Far better is Christian Bale as photojournalist Chris. In Turkey to document the rumours of the countrywide ‘relocation’ i.e mass extermination of the Armenians, he is a drunken politically astute firecracker. Seen repeatedly rubbing the upper classes of the Ottoman government up the wrong way at lavish banquets, his anger at the growing hostilities he witnesses is palpable but measured by his will to document it despite the pain of it all. Bale gives a terrific performance, allowing the film to finally delve into deeper darker complexities that the central romance sorely misses. Even his side of the love triangle is the stronger side with Chris’s feelings running the gamut of selfishness, sacrifice and affection. Although neither he nor Issac generate particular heat with object of attraction Ana. Charlotte Le Bon is perfectly watchable but written with a notable flatness that makes you question why these two men would risk so much to be with her.
All this soapy romance and softly lit Mills & Boon lovemaking is so-so but George captures the intensity of the genocide with powerful imagery. Being a 12A means the film never gets unnecessarily graphic but he stretches the boundaries of the rating as far as possible. One later scene involving a mass grave is raw, shocking and led by a visceral outburst from Issac. The Promise conveys the confusion, desperation and suffering of the Armenian people with a blunt simplicity, it is effective if a little broad. Mikael does suffer from what most of these historical meets fictional tales are guilty of, in that he is witness to every type of incident in order for the director to showcase every angle of the genocide. Mikael is forced into a labour camp (featuring an odd little cameo from an accented Tom Hollander), hitches a ride on a prisoner train, witnesses the massacre of an entire village and plays a major role in the factual resistance battle that makes up the finale. Let’s be honest all these events in some form actually tragically happened, but in shoehorning them all in there becomes an air of silliness to it all.
The Promise certainly hits all the beats that are to be expected from a historical epic, at over 2hrs it does feel lengthy, but there is something tangibly missing. In focusing on the romance angle too hard there becomes a barrier to fully being moved by the terrible events that unfold. This film should be respected and admired for shining a light on these unfortunate times but it would have been far more valuable as a filmic document if the romance were not so dominant. Mills & Boon meets The History Channel is not the best tagline for a film.
Verdict: Undeniably moving recreations of a truly tragic part of history, a cast that sells it effectively and high production values are lessened by a melodrama equal parts blunt and distasteful.