Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Šerbedžija, Angela Sarafyan, Marwan Kanzari, Tom Hollander, James Cromwell, Jean Reno, Michael Stahl-David, Alicia Borrachero, Roman Mitichyan, Stewart Scudamore.
Director: Terry George
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality.)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2017
Babieka, Survival Pictures, Wonderful Films, and Open Road Films.
Written by: Terry George and Robin Swicord.
The Promise is a film that means well, offering a fictional love story set against a very real and horrific series of events on the eve of World War I, as the Turks, in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, perpetuated the massacre of more than 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-1917.
Truth be told, a number of films use real-life history as a platform to tell fabricated or fictional stories. Sadly, The Promise never defines whether it is aiming for historical epic status, a tearful love story, or something else entirely. And this proves problematic, once you start to see just how much director and co-writer Terry George and co-writer Robin Swicord cram into this distended and heavy-handed film.
Well-acted from three main performers, we first meet Mikael (Oscar Isaac, terrific) as a prospective medical student agreeing to use a dowry from his fiance’s family to not only complete his studies, but to also commit to marrying Maral (Angela Sarafyan) upon his graduation and return home. He departs for two years, landing in Constantinople, c. 1914, where he lives with his uncle. Soon, he meets the beguiling Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), romantically involved with American-born Associated Press reporter Chris Burns (Christian Bale). .
Mikael and Ana find something of an immediate connection and begin growing increasingly close as she and Burns have struggles in their relationship. As all of this is occurring, Burns’ reporting finds him uncovering that the Turkish military are actively destroying Armenian villages, marching women and children through the desert to new settlements. Witnessing firsthand the horrors being perpetuated on Armenian families and communities, Burns begins documenting what he can.
Meanwhile, Mikael and Ana may have just held hands for the first time.
You see the problem, right? The Promise is a love story, the kind that features lots of hand-wringing over trying to decide whether or not to pursue what the heart wants or settling for something else. And you also get a sobering, jaw-dropping pictorial of a horrific genocide. Undeterred, George pushes forward with both stories, crafting an increasingly overwrought tale of love and death amid an ongoing series of conflicts, disputes, and challenges.
George is perhaps best known for his searing and visceral Hotel Rwanda in 2004. Swicord received an Oscar nomination for her work writing 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Her daughter, Zoe Kazan, is a highly respected and critically acclaimed actress. All of this to say, the pedigree of talent behind The Promise is not comprised of ambitious new filmmakers biting off more than they can chew.
Rather, these are seasoned veterans biting off way more than they can chew, and, quite frankly, they should have known better than to try and use an event like the Armenian genocide to tell a story involving two men swooning over the same woman.
Elsewhere, three-time Oscar nominated editor Steven Rosenblum is way, way off his game here. A few scenes in the opening half-hour are poorly sequenced with continuity errors present. Later, as George and Swicord develop a mini-series’ worth of stories to stuff into two hours, the film rushes through events so quickly, you just throw up your hands and wonder where any of this is going.
Earlier this year, a controversial romantic drama, The Ottoman Lieutenant, took the approach that the Armenian genocide simply never happened and spun a romantic yarn between an American nurse and a Turkish soldier during this same time frame. And although more than 30 countries acknowledge the atrocities committed from 1915-1917, the Turkish government still, to this day, refuses to acknowledge these events as anything other than “relocation” or collateral damage in a time of war.
Also, why are we telling love stories during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the murder of 1.5 million Armenians? Can we maybe just tell that story instead?
It is as if George and Swicord felt that the Armenian tragedies simply could not sustain a feature-length movie and a complicated, occasionally inane, love story is what must be the missing ingredient to make this whole story come together. The film also squanders a great Oscar Isaac, who somehow makes all of this easy to consume.
The Promise is just a badly calculated misfire, a film that never decides on what is more important: The Armenian genocide, or the medical student who loves the French woman, who is dating the American reporter, while his fiance waits back home.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Oscar Isaac is terrific yet again, reminding us that he is one of the finest working actors in the business right now.
- No matter the results, props to Terry George and Robin Swicord for attempting to bring this history to the big screen. Ignored and overlooked, the Armenian genocide is a significant moment in world history.
- The film has scenes of great beauty and visually, it delivers a nice aesthetic.
- Seriously, what are we doing here? What are we aiming for with this? Can someone tell me?
- I am curious how the Armenian population might respond to this. Maybe this is all much ado about nothing, but there is a bait-and-switch here with the story you think you are getting and what you actually receive that is hard to ignore.
- Ultimately, the movie says nothing profound and just blitzes through so much in the last hour or so, you find yourself watching scenes start, finish, and move along with little to no emotional connection whatsoever. Overall, what a disappointment.