Director: Terry George Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale Running Time: 134 minutes
Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman government systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenians, massacring men and/or working them to death in forced labour while deporting women, children and the elderly into death marches through the desert. It was a genocide that to this day, the Turkish state has refused to acknowledge. As one of the bleakest acts in relatively recent human history, the Armenian Genocide is undoubtedly worthy of being told to a wide audience, which makes The Promise all the more frustrating. Despite having a relatively high budget, talented and well-known actors and someone with a good track record in historical drama behind the camera in Terry George (the Irish director having directed Hotel Rwanda in addition to writing films like The Boxer and In The Name of the Father), The Promise is hampered in its depiction of history because of its choice to set that history as the backdrop to a romance that is not especially interesting.
To be fair to The Promise, there is logic in grounding a historical event in a more personal story, showing how individuals were affected. It’s important even, to remember that every number of the death toll in a tragedy was their own person, with their own lives, dreams and ambitions. Oscar Isaac plays Mikael, whose ambition is to progress from the family apothecary in his Armenian village to getting a full doctorate in Constantinople. He becomes betroved to a local women in order to use the dowry to pay for his education, but once he arrives in the city to study and live with his uncle, Mikael finds himself falling for the family au pair Ana, played by Charlotte Le Bon, a well-travelled and well-educated woman who happens to be from a place just a few villages over from Mikael’s family. The two would be perfect for each other – except of course, he is already engaged and she is in a relationship with a passionate American journalist, played by Christian Bale. A will they, won’t they plays out improbably while they flee Turkish oppression. The aim here is for an epic romance where true love can withstand anything, but it doesn’t really work for several reasons.
First and foremost, while a love story’s attempt to survive the cruel hand of history might work in a film like Titanic, in a case like this it’s hard not to think that Isaac, Le Bon and Bale should have bigger concerns than who is kissing who. The tension is primarily rooted in whether Isaac and Le Bon are going to be together rather than if they are going to survive, and a romance that aims to accentuate the human tragedy of the Genocide ends up overshadowing it. While Armenians shops are sacked and burnt in the streets, Isaac and Le Bon react to escaping an assault by having sex, which is supposed to be them getting wrapped up in the moment but comes across instead like they can’t see the writing on the wall because they’re too busy looking at the ceiling. In scenes that actually engage with the grim history at hand, Isaac delivers the emotional performance required. Fleeing a labour camp, stowing away on top of a train while hands of his people reach out desperately to him through the window, searching through piles of discarded bodies and taking up arms in grief, Isaac carries the weight the film wants to give these moments, sick with grief and charged with adreneline. When he’s with Le Bon on the other hand, the pair fail to spark. The romance taking precedence wouldn’t be a problem if it actually worked, but there isn’t much chemistry and the love triangle trio are more interesting when they’re apart. Le Bon may not have the track record of her male co-stars, but she never gets much more to do than pine and be blandly ‘nice’, tending to orphan children while Bale, determined to cover the events truthfully at any cost, and Isaac take action.
Good intentions and startling imagery make The Promise moving and meaningful in the moments when it isn’t being diverted by it’s questionable love-triangle story. Terry George is more than capable of displaying the pathos of important historical events, but his film creaks against its budget occasionally and features some distracting casting choices, like a third-act near cameo from Jean Reno or a strange interlude with the (definitely not Armenian) Tom Hollander as a labour camp clown. There is a respectable film in here somewhere and a story that deserves to be told, but too often it’s held back by a lack of focus and a fixation on its ineffective love story.(2.5 / 5)
The Promise is released in Irish cinemas Friday April 28th.