THE PROMISE (Spain | USA/12A/133mins)
Directed by Terry George. Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte LeBon, Christian Bale
THE PLOT: Against the backdrop of World War I, Armenian medical student Michael (Oscar Isaac) travels to Constantinople to continue his studies, leaving his family and fiancée – whose dowry he is using to pay for his education – back home. Michael falls for the beautiful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) in Constantinople, and as Constantinople burns from riots and turmoil, the two have an illicit affair behind Ana’s boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale) back.
THE VERDICT: ‘The Promise’ is a film that, on the surface, we have seen the like of before; love in a time of war. The interesting thing here is that director Terry George’s previous films include ‘Some Mother’s Son’, ‘In the Name of the Father’ and ‘Hotel Rwanda’; all films about troubles with identity, nationality and power, and ‘The Promise’ is really no different, as it is set against the Armenian genocide between 1915 and 1923.
Oscar Isaac leads the cast as Michael, a man who does not seem to have the courage of his convictions, and is almost always bailed out by the actions of others. Isaac makes Michael a charming enough character, but is consistently struggling against a screenplay that wants to paint him as anything but a hero. There is little doubt that Charlotte Le Bon is beautiful, but she gets very little chance to flesh out the character of Ana, and give the audience an understanding of just why men fall at her feet. Christian Bales makes Chris brash and loudly American, and a man who is desperate for the world at large to know what is happening as the Ottoman Empire crumbles, while drinking himself to death and being generally obnoxious. The rest of the cast features Shohreh Aghdashloo, Tom Hollander, James Cromwell and Jean Reno who, like the rest of the cast, struggle through the film in a variety of accents, and Angela Sarafyan who, unlike the rest of the main cast, actually is of Armenian descent.
Terry George and Robin Swicord’s screenplay struggles with trying to be all things to all men, and ends up being not much to any. There is a love triangle, a war machine, a coward and a woman waiting at home, as well as a glimpse at a concentration camp, and hints of racism throughout the film. The true subject of the film – the genocide of Armenian people – does not even enter proceedings until over an hour in, and the love story that it replaces is insipid and unengaging.
As director Terry George allows ‘The Promise’ to be rambling and loosely structured, where the story needs a firm hand to guide it through and keep the audience engaged with the characters, who are not particularly well drawn. The pacing is ponderous throughout the film, and other than some casual “you are not like us”-esque statements from Turkish characters, the film never tries to explain the reason for the Armenian genocide, other than the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which is mentioned in passing. Terry George is known for exploring national identity under fire, but struggles to get his point across in ‘The Promise’.
In all, ‘The Promise’ does not work fully on any level; as a love story, an examination of war or shining a spotlight on genocide, and although the film is populated with wonderful actors, the entire film is lacklustre and unengaging.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    The Promise shines on a light on a lesser-known part of history, one which has eerie echoes into the present day. As director Terry George has said, it’s not so much about history, but is actually news given current events involving the movement of migrants.

    In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Mikael (Oscar Isaac) leaves his small community of Turkish Armenians for the bright lights of Constantinople (now Istanbul). An apothecary with dreams of becoming a doctor, he is betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) and has made a promise to marry her on his return. A promise he soon forgets when he meets fellow Turkish Armenian Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). She is in a relationship with respected American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). He’s in Turkey to cover the shift in power as World War I erupts. Unfortunately, this also means that Turkish Armenians are faced with persecution by the Turkish Government and armed forces. It’s not long before Mikael is hounded off the streets and into a labour camp. As time passes and he witnesses the mass slaughter of his people, his path crosses again with Ana, whom he still loves…

    The timing of The Promise is slightly unfortunate. It follows not long after the release of Bitter Harvest, a horribly mis-judged film about the mass genocide of Ukrainians during the bloody reign of Stalin. Both films even share the same cast member – Tamer Hassan, again playing a brutal soldier. The similarities should end there though, as The Promise is a better-made and more honest film. It helps to have the financial backing of the late Hollywood mogul and Armenian Kirk Kerkorian, as well as a talented director in George. He has form in this area before, having made Hotel Rwanda in 2004. The Promise is an old-school film, sweeping in its scope but intimate in zeroing in on its personal relationships and the love triangle at its core. It’s not hard to be reminded of Doctor Zhivago here.

    George makes good use of his locations and fine cast, portraying the horrors of genocide just enough to fit within the boundaries of a 12A. In fact, the events of this film even coined the term genocide. The story sweeps you along, aided by its unfamiliarity (to this reviewer anyway) and occasionally shocking moments, like Mikael discovering a mass of bodies near a river. That said though, some elements of George’s and Robin Swicord’s screenplay don’t work. If the film is really about a promise between Mikael and Maral, why underplay the relationship between them? We barely meet Maral before Mikael breaks his promise by sleeping with Ana. There’s little or no emotional investment in Mikael and Maral’s relationship, instead shifting the focus onto Mikael and Ana. That serves later developments in the story, but early on it feels short-changed. The Promise may be flawed in spots, but the strong performances and measured direction should resonate with audiences. Good films about the past can often be about the present. ***