The Promise, 2016.
Directed by Terry George
Starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Tom Hollander and James Cromwell.
In the days just before World War I, Michael (Oscar Isaac) has become engaged to a girl in his home village and is studying to be a doctor in Constantinople. He falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), but she is attached to American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). As the situation in the region escalates and the Armenians are increasingly persecuted, the three are repeatedly separated and re-united. And Ana has to choose between the two men.
Never a director to shy away from tough subjects – think Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father – Terry George has returned to the subject of genocide in The Promise, but this time moving his theatre of war to the start of World War I. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and Turkey had decided to involve itself in the war. At the same time, the peaceful existence between the Turks and the Armenian community had fractured, with the Armenians coming under increasing threat.
But as The Promise prepares to open in the UK, the omens for its success aren’t good. At its TIFF premiere last year, there were standing ovations. Since then, thousands of negative reviews, reputedly backed by the Turkish government, haven’t helped its cause and it’s now reported that it could be a big loser on the balance sheet – in the States at least. Yet, on the face of it, with a respected director like George at the helm and the likes of Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac heading the cast, it should have been a safe bet.
The truth is that it’s nowhere near as bad as all those reviews would have you believe. George openly admits that he’s inspired by epics in the mould of Lawrence of Arabia and Schindler’s List and The Promise most definitely has a touch of David Lean about it, certainly as far as the storyline is concerned. It’s close to being an Armenian Doctor Zhivago: Isaac’s trainee doctor has a fiancée back home but falls in love with somebody already in a relationship, and it all takes place against a background of radical upheaval. For the Russian revolution, read Armenian genocide. There’s just a bit less snow.
This time, however, the story of war, social divide and refugees has a strong, contemporary resonance, putting you in mind of some of today’s war zones: Aleppo itself is actually mentioned in the film, but ironically as a place of sanctuary. Captions at the end tell us how many people died in the genocide and that Turkey has never admitted that it took place.
George, who also wrote the script, fills the film to the brim with characters (some we believe are dead turn out to be alive), action, reunions and a stirring climax that’s reminiscent of Dunkirk. But the emotional pull is weakened by a sense of predictability and a detachment that prevents you getting seriously involved with the people on-screen and their predicament, both romantic and political. With so much packed in, it sometimes makes for a draining watch and that affects your sense of involvement.
Unsurprisingly, Isaac and Bale both make powerful leads, although sometimes Bale just can’t resist giving the scenery a nibble, playing the noble, principled journalist. Some characters come and go – and go too soon. Tom Hollander delivers a telling cameo as a former clown who Isaac meets in a labour camp. Sadly, he’s only on-screen for five minutes and you find yourself wishing that he stuck around longer, or been brought back.
So those unfavourable reviews aren’t an accurate reflection of what to expect from The Promise. It’s not a truly great film, but nor is it anything like as bad as you might have been lead to believe. Sweeping, romantic and solid, it sheds light on a lesser known piece of 20th century history. And with its slightly old-fashioned feel, it’s also something of a throwback to the epics of the past – reassuring for some, the cinematic doldrums for others.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★