The Promise, 2017.
Directed by Terry George.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Numan Acar, Michael Stahl-David, Rade Šerbedžija, Abel Folk, Andrew Tarbet, Angela Sarafyan, Armin Amiri, Tom Hollander, Jean Reno, and James Cromwell.
Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, The Promise follows a love triangle between Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris – a renowned American journalist based in Paris.
The genocide of any race is a disturbing sight to behold, and to be fair, The Promise (directed by Terry George of Hotel Rwanda fame) does get around to a few (one especially notable) haunting images depicting senseless slaughter and death in all of its unholy glory. The pain of an entire people is felt, regardless of whether the camera is fixated on a supporting character or a faceless victim of the sickening suffering, which renders things all the more unfortunate that the period piece historical drama decides to weave in a fictional romance story between two Armenians and a journalist working for the Associated Press. Putting it bluntly, Terry George is no James Cameron and The Promise is no Titanic.
There is an ambition to tell two sweeping stories at once, and while I can always respect a filmmaker attempting to go above and beyond, the proceedings here are dull and only somehow lose steam as the picture continues. Theoretically, The Promise could have been a much more focused and engaging film by chopping out the character of Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who really adds nothing to the plot besides complicating the love lives for Mikael (Oscar Isaac) and Chris (Christian Bale). Honestly, an actress of her caliber deserves more to chew on. There’s simply more emotional stakes if The Promise is about Mikael and his plight to become a doctor and defend the Armenian race while trying to make it home and protect the woman he has betrothed in order to gain the necessary finances for his aforementioned dream career.
If that were done, it would allow for two great things: a reduced running time (the film runs over two hours and along with occasionally being uninteresting, falls into a series of repetitive and non-impressive quick bursts of battle sequences), and Terry George to bring the attention of the Armenian Genocide (which is also an overlooked piece of World War I history) to the forefront. The Promise works when there are characters to legitimately care about and fear for amid some truly harrowing events occurring.
Plot grievances aside, Oscar Isaac (getting a chance to portray yet another nationality like the chameleon he is) is average at best, often times dipping into the side of cheesy overacting. For example, during a scene where an important character dies in his arms, spit and slime is plain as day visible dripping from his mouth and sticking to the character’s hair as if Terry George said “NOW CRY!” and Oscar Isaac chose to see just how over-the-top he could go. His facial expressions and mannerisms are fine (especially his dark, raccoon eyes) and appropriately elicit disgust for the atrocities being committed, but overall his turn is a mixed bag.
It’s, even more, a shame because the first 30 minutes or so are actually fine; characters are established, motives are established, and everything is generally fairly interesting. And then before you know it, Mikael is in a prisoner labor camp escaping with absolutely ludicrous methods and happenstance scenarios that temporarily suck all realism out of the movie, making everything come across as an action film from the 60s. Thankfully, that tone doesn’t last long, but that stretch certainly is what will cause many to begin checking out mentally.
The rest of the performances are fine; Christian Bale’s Chris walks the line between being a journalist of integrity and getting out information to the public that suits his own agendas, which are a bit confrontational at the beginning of the film. His character is also a reminder of how powerful words and pictures can and should be to the public eye. Meanwhile, although Ana unnecessarily complicates the film, Charlotte Le Bon plays the strong woman with a great degree of kindness and compassion, and most importantly, a firm moral compass staunchly wanting to do the right thing and help her fellow Armenian people.
There is a good movie to be found in The Promise, but the execution is all over the place squandering a ton of potential. The Armenian people deserve a better film bringing their horrific struggles into the spotlight, and maybe one will eventually come, but with that said the film isn’t a complete disaster. It’s first and foremost educational and enlightening for an important World War I subject, and does tell a story worth being told with some serviceable acting from recognizable names. Who knows how great the film could have been without the unnecessary love triangle.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★