The largely forgotten atrocities of the early 20th century Armenian Genocide form the backdrop of The Promise, Terry George’s operatic historical epic. Unfortunately, the rather rote human drama at the centre somewhat fails to engage.
It is 1915. Mikael (Oscar Isaac), the son of a village apothecary, travels to Constantinople to study medicine. There he befriends a fellow student, Emre (Marwan Kenzarie), the wealthy son of a Turkish official, and finds the possibility of romance with the Paris-educated Armenian girl, Ana, who is working as a governess for his uncle.
However, as Europe is plunged into war, anti-Armenian sentiment in the Ottoman Empire reaches fever pitch. Ana’s lover (and Mikael’s romantic rival), the American journalist Chris (Christian Bale), investigates rumours of Armenians being marched off their land by Turkish troops, and finds evidence of mass atrocities. Mikael and his family are rounded up during the ethnic purge and he is sent to a labour camp. The Armenian Genocide has begun.
Set against one of the great tragedies of modern history and boasting an excellent cast doing top notch work, The Promise is a sweeping, humanistic epic that attempts to put a face and context to the incredible atrocity that was the Armenian Genocide. However, for all that it is tackling an incredibly worthy subject, George’s film feels less than the sum of its parts.
Partly that’s because the human drama that pushes the narrative forward is nothing we haven’t seen before, and the uniformly excellent work by the cast (Isaac in particular) can’t do much to change that. But The Promise is also hampered by an overly (and, let’s face it) understandably reverent approach to the material at hand. We’re largely kept removed from directly experiencing the horrors of the Genocide as the film struggles, even at its generous running time to take us from the initial purges of April 24, 1915, to the Armenian resistance’s fighting retreat from Musagh Dagh, taking in a number of points in between. There’s a lot of plot jammed in, basically to ensure that the viewer gets a decent overview of the scale of the events. Essentially, the film’s work as a history lesson somewhat undermines its function as a drama.
There are small moments that speak volumes, though. For all that the love triangle is forefronted, it’s the relationship between Mikael and Emre that is the most interesting, as the latter risks his life to help his Armenian friend while being constrained by his position and ostensible privilege. Bale’s Chris is a character type we’ve seen before – the hard-drinking, morally forthright newsman – but it’s through his eyes that we see the ordinary heroism of people working against the Ottoman Empire, be it missionaries smuggling war orphans out of the country, or a sympathetic Turkish official protecting the Armenians under his administration. These little grace notes do more to drive home the reality of the situation than the main thrust of the narrative ever achieves.
Ultimately, The Promise is more admirable than enjoyable, but perhaps that was the intent. It’s a worthy film, but what frustrates is the sense that it’s only a couple of drafts away from being a really great one.