What’s the best way to explore a historical tragedy such as the Armenian genocide? Well, certainly not through a corny love triangle. That’s the sort of deeply inappropriate trivialization that Hollywood should be over. Yet here comes ‘The Promise’ to reduce its subject down to some melodramatic cheese.
Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael, a lower class man who agrees to marry a local girl (Angela Sarafyan from ‘Westworld’) to receive the dowry that will finance his plans to become a doctor. He then moves to Constantinople and signs up for medical school while living with his uncle. Shortly after setting up shop in the big city, Mikael falls for his cousin’s tutor, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). It’s a tricky situation made worse by the fact that the Ottomon Empire is just about to enter World War I, which will soon lead to the slow and disgustingly strategic murder of the country’s Armenian population. As if that weren’t bad enough, Ana has a boyfriend, and it’s Christian Bale playing an American journalist who specializes in the rising tensions between the Turks and the Germans. War breaks out, the characters become pawns in a larger political game, and love bonds prove to be precious little relief. In fact, they tend to make things far worse.
Written and directed by Terry George (‘Hotel Rwanda’, ‘In The Name of the Father’), the film desperately wants to be an epic in the David Lean mold. It has plenty of painterly beauty shots that lovingly linger on the expensive sets and costumes. Unfortunately, everything contained within those pretty pictures feels underwhelming. What is supposed to be a searing tale of politics told through cinematic spectacle never quite figures out what it wants to say beyond the fact that there were too many compliant bad Turks and not enough good ones. The overqualified cast do little beyond providing brooding focal points to the overstuffed frames. Isaac’s characterization is limited to dignified expressions of shock, and Bale is limited to angry expressions of outrage. In between those outbursts, they stare meaningfully off camera as if the right frown might somehow signal humanity in a hollow characterization.
The love story feels completely tacked-on, little more than an irritating attempt to add conventional emotional beats to a story that should be too ambitious for such mushy matters. The movie has some striking and haunting images of the genocide that serve as dramatic highlights. They briefly bring the film to life and treat the historical subject matter with the respect it deserves. Within those fleeting moments, it’s possible to see the movie that Terry George intended: a searing portrait of a forgotten tragedy executed on a grand scale. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to deliver that movie. Instead, he got too bogged down with attempts to add teary-eyed romance in order to theoretically add commercial appeal to a film that will never capture the ‘Captain America’ crowd.
For a movie that’s supposed to be about the messiness of war and the horribly inhumane injustices that such combat can bring to innocent lives, ‘The Promise’ is an oddly conventional affair without much genuine human behavior. Its story unfolds like a screenwriting textbook, slotting Inciting Incident A into Satisfying Resolution B so often until the movie feels far too manufactured to live up to the true story at the core.
Given all the money, the star power, and the massive filmmaking team involved, it’s hard to watch this giant production limp along so awkwardly. The film lurches from one pointless romantic interlude to the next, broken up only by historical tragedy that comes across as mildly exploitative in context. The shocks do indeed jolt audiences back into the movie, but then it’s back to contrived melodrama that undermines any of the film’s genuine achievements. What a waste.