Hoping to be the Doctor Zhivago of the Armenian Genocide, Terry George’s The Promise is just getting started as a tale of forbidden love when war tears the three players in its romantic triangle apart — giving them a surprising number of opportunities to reunite and separate as they try to help defenseless loved ones survive. The event-stuffed screenplay seems frightened of the running time associated with historical romances, though, excising any occasion for reflection or distraction; as a result, the picture moves with a mechanical predictability that would be considerably more annoying with a less watchable cast in front of us. Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon (Philippe Petit’s girlfriend in The Walk) make the film an easier sell to American audiences, but this will not enjoy the critical support given to George’s Hotel Rwanda; compared to that flawed but affecting picture, this one looks like it was stamped by a cookie cutter.
Isaac plays Michael, a young apothecary in a Turkish village where, we’re told in voiceover, “we treated everyone alike.” The year is 1914, and that harmony between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians is about to end.
An earnest but much too formulaic attempt to humanize this historic atrocity.
Wanting to go to medical school, Michael agrees to marry a local girl he assumes he’ll grow to love. He takes the dowry and goes to Constantinople, promising to return for the wedding once he’s a doctor.
He is sent to the home of his father’s cousin, a local merchant, and Michael hasn’t even taken his coat off before the movie tells us what’s going to happen to him. Pointing out onto the porch, his host says, “That’s the girls’ tutor … just back from Paris”; we don’t need to get a look at Ana, or to see Michael’s face as he registers her beauty, to know he’s going to fall for her. Likewise a few scenes later, when Ana introduces her journalist boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), he looks like a man who already knows he’s going to be cuckolded, and is pretty angry about it.
This clockwork efficiency persists throughout, which is not to say the story is uninvolving. Michael is drafted into military service when Turkey enters the war, but a rich friend saves him with a bribe. He’s intent on keeping his blossoming friendship with Ana chaste, but they are thrown together by an eruption of anti-Armenian violence on the street, forced to hide together in a hotel. Their resolve predictably crumbles. They’re torn apart the following day, when he is taken by the Army to work as a slave on the railroad.
Here, we enter the thick of war-film plotting, with myriad opportunities for personal bravery and loyalty and self-sacrifice. Michael is able to escape to his village, where he reluctantly makes good on that promise, marrying secretly and hiding in the woods to make babies. For a time, Bale’s Chris Myers becomes the movie’s protagonist, driven by righteous anger to witness the atrocities the government denies are happening and send reports of them to American newspaper readers. We share his indignation, of course, but ours is compounded by the knowledge that, a century later, Turkey continues to deny what happened here was a genocide. We just wish a better film were making this case.
For some viewers, the breaking point in The Promise will come when Michael is commiserating with other slaves around a bonfire, and the saddest man there reports “I was a clown. In the circus. I made the children laugh.” Having invested precious moments in our concern for this sad-clown side character, the movie cashes in by killing him in the very next scene.
It’s commonplace, and sometimes unfair, to complain that movies like this trivialize wartime suffering by focusing on the romances of fictional characters. But in at least one scene here, the movie’s sincere interest in showing the horrific things the Ottoman government did to its Armenian citizens is so thoroughly betrayed by its melodramatic agenda that it’s hard not to be offended: When Michael returns from a mission to find that every single Armenian in his village has been killed, we should be horrified at the sight of so many bodies scattered on the river bank. But given the tick-tocking of the scenes leading up to it, each of them having such an obvious and predictable function, all we can do is wait for the shot of Michael’s dead wife. The film will pretend to be sad for a while, but the inevitable sensation is one of relief: Finally Michael is freed from that damned promise and can get back to loving Ana.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala)
Production company: Survival Pictures
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan, Jean Reno, James Cromwell
Director: Terry George
Screenwriters: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Producers: Eric Esrailian, Mike Medavoy, Ralph Winter and William Horberg
Executive producers: Kirk Kerkorian, Ralph Winter, Denise O’Dell, Mark Albela, Anthony Mandekic, Patricia L. Glaser, Dan Taylor, Sheri Sani
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Benjamin Fernandez
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Casting directors: Avy Kaufman, John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard, Camilla-Valentine Isola
Not rated, 134 minutes