“They don’t make them like they used to.” A trite and cliché phrase if there ever was one, yet at the same time is usually apt whenever it gets doled out. Gone are the days when sweeping epics graced the screen several times a year. The Promise wants to change that while also casting a light on a terrible act that occurred at the start of World War I. An act that still to this day, is denied by many to have ever happened. Sadly, that weight is too much to carry on its own. So the filmmakers opt that a maudlin love story was the best way to balance the load, derailing what initially was a noble effort.
Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Issac) is the local apothecary of small Armenian village, in the eastern region of Ottoman Turkish Empire. Needless voice-over explains his desire to become a doctor, bringing the best medical care to his people. Coming from a modest family, he is forced to secure the funds to study at an academy of medicine through a 400 coin dowry. He makes a promise to his betrothed that he will return to her in a scant few years, as a better, stronger man.
After settling in with extended family in Constantinople, Mikael meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a sophisticated dance tutor and fellow Armenian raised in Paris. Possibly love at first sight, he finds himself enraptured by this woman, even though he states to his uncle he has agreed to marraige back home. One he dares not break, until the script deems it necessary. Ana isn’t alone in the city, but rather accompanied by her boyfriend, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a reporter for the Associated Press. Before either of the two can explore budding relationships or exert their dominance, the world threatens to tear itself apart.
Somewhere inside The Promise is a story that deserves to be told. Persecution and executions of Armenians during the fall of the Ottoman Empire is no laughing matter, but using it merely as a backdrop is egregiously unfortunate. You can tell Director Terry George wants to make his own Doctor Zhivago or Reds, but he lacks both the tact and patience to undertake such a task. A shame, considering the effectiveness he showed in Hotel Rwanda. This is a film often at odds with itself, one moment a spy movie, another a love story, the next a harrowing depiction of war and suffering. The pieces never add up to a cohesive whole.
Oscar Issac is serviceable as a man just attempting ever to slightly to keep his head above water. While it isn’t an overly showy performance, he put himself through the ringer, needlessly so, ever the consummate professional. He’s overshadowed both in character and stature by Bale’s Chris Myers. Myers is commanding and heroic, a man willing to do anything for a story, yet also compelled to help those who are suffering.
It’s a shame whenever the action moves away from him, threatening to forget the roots on which the film itself was built. Only when the story kicks back to the romance side, do things turn towards the worse for Bale. A trap that so many films have trouble avoiding : “the good guy becomes boorish or overbearing, so that people root for the other guy.” This rings false, as every indication is given that he’s anything but. An early plot point even has him sobering up, showing Ana he’s capable of change.
Ana herself comes off as cute and determined, driven by a passion to stand by her people, even as they are slaughtered. She doesn’t get much time to develop her character, as she is often seen pining for either Chris or Mikael. In 2017 it comes off as disappointing to see a character reduced to such things. Even if it logically falls in line with older movies The Promise strives to emulate.
There is a stretch of about 15 minutes in the middle of the film that can only be described as a “parade of misery”. In it Mikael stumbles upon travesty after travesty, with nary a breather or word spoken in between. No context is given to any of the passages, robbing the people of importance and humanity. It depicsts them as nothing more than instruments of manipulation. True, most war films or historical dramas focus on such things, but their framing can make all the difference. Take for instance a quieter moment when Mikael Stumbles upon a kindly elderly Armenian couple. At first they’re started by his emergence from a river bed, then moved to ask out of basic kindness. Due to the stark contrast of what comes before, there’s no weight in the interaction, just a breather before things turn dour once again.
Adding to confusion and clashing stories are a handful of character actors who show up just long enough to be recognized before they are quickly ushered off. None of the appearances seem have any rhyme or reason. James Cromwell is stern but triumphant for 3 minutes. Jean Reno merely stands bewildered on the deck of a ship, not sure what he’s doing there. The strangest of these mini-cameos though, belongs to Tom Hollander, as a POW Mikael befriends. In his brief screen time he is he is able to bring warm and humor in the still of the night. It speaks more to his abilities as a brilliant actor, than it does the people behind the camera that he is able to do so much with so little.
The Promise wants to be jack of all trades, that of a rousing adventure, a thrilling love story and searing expose of the Armenian Geonocide. It ends up as a master of none, attention focused on going through the motions instead of acutely understanding the material it wants to mine. That’s the issue when most people’s are merely in the right place. Sometimes the best of intentions can only get you so far.