The Promise (PG-13) ★★★

Oscar Issac and Charlotte Le Bon star in “The Promise.” Photo credit: Open Road Films.

The Promise Fails to Deliver

The Armenian Genocide is one of the most tragic stories of the 20th century as the Turks massacred an estimated 1 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. The systematic killing which occurred over the course of WWI would even later inspire the Holocaust as Hitler would later write, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”  What makes this tragedy even sadder is that the modern Turkish government and many other nations (for political reasons) refuse to acknowledge this tragedy even happened. The historical romance epic, The Promise, tackles this atrocity head on and was made in part to raise awareness of the incident and share the story of the Armenian people to a wider audience. Despite the best intentions of the production team behind the movie, the film itself is actually mediocre and unfortunately falls short as a tribute to the victims.

The Promise opens in a rural Armenian village in the Ottoman Empire just before the outset of WWI. In this village, the main character, Mikael (Oscar Isaac, 2017, X-Men: Apocalypse), works in an apothecary with a desire to be a real doctor. To finance medical school, he agrees to marry Maral, (Angela Sarafyan from HBO’s West World) a young woman in his village. He uses this dowry to enroll in medical school in Constantinople, where he lives with his uncle and his family. Although Mikael is dazzled by the capital, he also witnesses the Turk’s growing mistreatment of fellow Armenians. Although he may be considered a second class citizen on the streets, Mikael excels in school and befriends a Turkish med student, Emre Ogan (Marwan Kanzari, Ben-Hur, 2016). Emre comes from a prominent family and exposes Mikael to new social circles. While at a party, he crosses paths with the beautiful Ana, (Charlotte Le Bon, The Walk), an Armenian woman who spent years in Paris and is a friend of his uncle. Ana is dating an American journalist named Chris Meyers (Christian Bale, Ben-Hur, 2016), who is a vocal opponent of the Turkish government’s mistreatment of the Armenian people and is concerned about what will happen if war breaks out. Although Mikael is betrothed back home and Anna is with Chris, the two have an immediate connection and attraction.

Eventually, war does break out, and the Ottoman Empire allies itself with the Germans.  Armenians are now being openly attacked in the streets, and one night Mikael defends Ana from such an attack. While in hiding, Mikael and Ana succumb to their attraction and spend the night together. Chris, who suspects romantic feelings between Ana and Mikael, decides to take Ana out of the city as he fears for her safety. Although Mikael feels guilt over his tryst, he doesn’t have a lot of time to process his feelings when the Armenian peoples’ lives are quickly uprooted.  Mikael, who avoids military conscription with a medical student exception and assistance from his friend Emre, is eventually sent to a labor camp when he tries to save his uncle from a similar fate. Meanwhile, Chris is continuing to crusade as a journalist and tries to alert the world to the plight of the Armenians who are disappearing across the country. The rest of the movie deals with the outcome of this love triangle and the fight to save the Armenians from Turkish persecution.

The Promise has a very talented cast, particularly Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale.  However, their talents go to waste here as the film tries to do too much within its scope. As a story, the movie really emulates another romantic epic Doctor Zhivago (another young doctor in a love triangle) but also tries to add in the tragic feel of Schindler’s List. This is a difficult task to achieve, and it ultimately fails here as the juggling act of war atrocities, and the love triangle falls flat. It’s understandable to want to add more emotion to the film beside sadness, but the romance here was just underdeveloped. This comes across in the performances as well, as Bale’s performance is fairly unconvincing in the first half of the film as the “other man” and much stronger later when he focuses on saving the Armenian people. Isaac’s performance is uneven as well as he is asked to do too much with his character in too short of a time, which is a problem as The Promise is not even a short film. Unfortunately, given all that this film is trying to do, it really should have been developed as a mini-series (there is a reason that historical romantic epics like Doctor Zhivago and Gone with the Wind are well over three hours). Another issue is that the movie doesn’t tell the story of what it means to be Armenian in that era as a people and doesn’t illustrate the depths of the tragedy. This is not to say that the movie is all bad as there are stretches of strong acting and interesting scenes from a historical perspective, but they do not outweigh the inconsistent performances and overly ambitious script.

Bottom Line: Despite the noble aim of the film, this movie is uneven and is only worth renting for history buffs.

Credits: Written by Terry George, Robert Swicord; Directed by Terry George

Cast: Oscar Isaac (Mikael), Charlotte Le Bon (Ana), Christian Bale (Chris Meyers), Marwan Kanzari (Emre Ogan), Angela Sarafyan (Maral) (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho (Father Andresian), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Marta), Rade Serbedzija (Stephan)

Studio: Open Road Films

Running Time: 134 minutes

Jessica DeLong © April 22, 2017