The first major representation of the Armenian genocide boasts solid acting but falls short of the mark by a hokey, old-fashioned romance.
1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turkish government between 1915 and 1923. In 1939 Hitler once said “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Unfortunately, Hitler’s statement remains topical as the Armenian genocide remains unacknowledged by Turkey and every sitting U.S. President.
It’s a story that demands to be told and, if anything, The Promise is a worthy effort at detailing the events. Like the Armenians who survived, we should be proud the film exists, in spite of its flaws. Director Terry George, helmer of 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, attempts to lift the veil, and has good intentions in doing so. It’s just unfortunate that, regardless of the story’s importance, it’s hobbled by a generic and trite romance.
Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an idealistic young man with ambitions of becoming a doctor. Unable to afford medical school he decides to marry a sweet village girl (Angela Sarafyan) and use the dowry to fund his dream. Upon entering the city of Constantinople he meets the beautiful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). The two have a spark, but Ana is the girlfriend of the roguish Associated Press reporter Chris Meyers (Christian Bale). Unfortunately, love in all its form is threatened by the increasing Turkish threat that not only tears Mikael and Ana apart, but threatens to destroy Mikael’s family.
Love Can Maybe Overcome
Director Terry George cites the likes of Doctor Zhivago and Reds as influences for The Promise, and they’re evident. The problem is those movies boasted three-hour runtimes to make the balance of serious political drama and romance equal. The Promise, too often, see-saws wildly between trite romantic sentiment and heavy political issues. Being able to even touch either of those films is worthy of praise, and George – with co-screenwriter Robin Swicord – do their level best.
Oscar Isaac’s Mikael is heavily drawn from Omar Sharif’s Zhivago, and if anyone could fill those shoes it’s Isaac. Mikael introduces himself, via quickly abandoned narrative, as an apothecary whose shop treats everyone the same. It’s lines like these that prevent The Promise from lingering in the brain as it’s too eager to spell out every single thing. “He treats everyone the same because, surprise, most people don’t.” Mikael’s ambition comes off as callous, though that has nothing to do with Isaac’s performance which is sweet when it needs to be, angry when it needs to be, and so on. It’s far from his worst work, but just as far from his best.
The initial promise of the title stems from his decision to marry Sarafyan’s Maral, though his intentions are presented as selfish. Sarafyan is the film’s Geraldine Chaplin, and it’s a shame she doesn’t get more to do. The narrative would flow better if Maral was an actual player in the story as opposed to an obstacle that needs to be removed. Once said impediment reaches its inevitable conclusion, and boy does it play out as such, the film’s title doesn’t make sense. If “the promise” becomes keeping the promise to acknowledge the genocide there’s no direct reference for it – shocking considering how everything else is spelled out – or attempt to make that known.
The film settles into telling a different love story, that of the triangle between Mikael, Ana and Chris. Since the film has so many places to go regarding characters and story, it’s sad the characters all feel one-note and unable to hold up the pyramid the script wants to sustain. Ana is loved by Chris and Mikael for unexplained reasons. Charlotte Le Bon is beautiful in a Winona Ryder way, but she lacks the acting chops, or the scripted motivation, of the character’s influences, Julie Christie and Diane Keaton. Ana is pretty, enjoys dancing with children, and in the third act takes a group of orphans under her wing. She’s an old-fashioned character whose sophistication and fragility is meant to make her a worthy woman for both men, but she’s too light a personality.
While Isaac’s Mikhael is enmeshed with the Armenians themselves during the genocide, Meyers details events from a distance. To avoid American exceptionalism and whitewashing, it’s easy to see why Meyers feels like a third wheel, though this makes the film’s divergences to his story a different film entirely. Meyers is chased down by Turkish soldiers on horseback, and a subplot that sees him nearly executed are interesting and provide a necessary look at the Turkish government’s cruelty, but blend only as far as Meyers is a man in the narrative.
Mikhael points out the hypocrisy of Meyers’ actions – he can return home – but the film never utilizes that in any meaningful way. Bale never becomes more than a spectator, another impediment standing in the way of this underwritten love between Ana and Mikhael. And Meyers must be a reporter with an amazing memory because outside of one scene of transcription he’s never seen writing or documenting events in any way.
The actual moments detailing the Armenian genocide come through clearest in the third act. We’re given typical beats common to genocide stories: train cars filled to bursting with people, work camps, burning down of shops. Have years of Holocaust stories prevented us from feeling anything new for different genocides? It’s a valid question and it gives The Promise a “been there, done that” vibe which shouldn’t be the case. A third-act battle between a group of Armenians hiding in the mountains provides some great action, but it comes too late in a film that is far too long.
The Promise’s flaws are gaping, but it’s still a film I recommend in spite of it all. The Armenian genocide is a story that demands to be told, and though the film is imperfect its heart is firmly in the right place. Isaac and Bale are solid, and the cast around them try equally as hard, all let down by a bad script. However, if this gives people a chance to learn, and speak, for the 1.5 million Armenians killed, it’s worth it.