Maybe there needs to be some promises made before filming well-intentioned dramatizations of historic atrocities. Like not filling the screenplay with a string of significant events containing the depth of Wikipedia bullet points. Or not using characters as empty ciphers purely to get from one development to the next. These, and several other, formulaic devices have turned sweeping silver screen epics into “very special” basic cable movies of the week.
Aside from some bloody violence and moments of standout cinematography, The Promise, which covers the Armenian Genocide in Turkey during World War I, feels like it would be a perfect fit for Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel.
Picking up just before the war, the film follows apothecary Mikael (Oscar Isaac), who travels from his small Turkish village to bustling Constantinople to study medicine. Funding his studies with the dowry from an engagement to a woman he doesn’t love, Mikael moves into the home of his uncle Mesrob (Igal Naor). There he meets ingénue Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a worldly Armenian woman who’s in a rocky relationship with American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). An affair begins just as Turkey enters the war and starts conducting a systematic extermination of its Armenian population.
With strong performers playing the three sides of the love triangle there’s potential for meaningful drama, and with some bite to the battle scenes there are affecting moments of brutality. The Promise, however, muddles the barbarism with the love story in an overstuffed two-hour-plus runtime that falls back on clichés for both narrative tracks. It’s also really hard to care about the love lives of Michael and Ana or the predicaments Chris puts himself into while covering the war as countless innocent people are being slaughtered.
The screenplay from director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) and Robin Swicord treats the contrivances with a solemn sincerity even though they exist in predicable scenes that serve obvious dramatic function. When Bale first lays eyes on Isaac he already seems to know that this is the guy that’s going to steal his girl. There’s an attempt to make the rivalry ambiguous by giving Chris several redeeming qualities that prevent him from being a broad scoundrel, but there’s no complexity to his interactions with Mikael. Bale and Isaac have little meaningful interaction, while Le Bon has even less to do as merely the woman in the middle.
Supporting characters in Mikael’s journey, including a man he meets while doing slave labor for the government (Tom Hollander), Turkish buddy Emre (Marwan Kenzari), and all members of his family, are just mechanics used to explain something and/or become tragic figures. None of it works because the design is so apparent. Hollander’s two-scene arc is especially limp and manipulative.
George’s direction works better. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe he captures the desolation of the dry, mountainous desert, the clashes in the Constantinople streets, and horrific massacres with authenticity. Several scenes are shrouded in darkness, however, perhaps an attempt at somberness, that comes off as superficial. It’s also frustrating when trying to follow action or read the emotions of the characters.
In covering so much at once, The Promise is unfocused as it jumps from mawkish romance to appalling cruelties and back again. Perhaps if only one of the wartime side plots were given full attention – Mikael trying to reunite with his family, the evacuation of Armenian orphans, a reporter’s attempt to publicize the genocide in the face of government opposition – the appalling history would resonate. Instead, the attempt to Titanic-ify the tragedy (particularly in a specific moment during the climax) with a fictional fling makes it all feel tired instead of touching.