Review: The Promise

Although an original story, this drama about the Armenian genocide of the early 20th Century (fluffed up with a love triangle storyline) feels like an adaptation of a long book which has been squished into a dense compendium of events, all pitched at the same level with no dramatic arc.

It’s 1914 and Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is living in the small Armenian village of Sirun in the southeast part of the Ottoman Empire, where he claims Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians live harmoniously. The promise of the title is that he has pledged to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan) the daughter of an affluent neighbor, in order to receive the dowry which he’ll use to pay his way through medical school. The school he chooses is in Constantinople, conveniently far enough away from the bride to be he has little feeling for.  

It’s here in Constantinople that he meets and falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian woman raised in Paris. So, that’s three characters, but only the last two are part of the triangle. The third is an American reporter Chris (Christian Bale), who is already romantically linked to Ana.

World War I breaks out and Mikael returns to his village only to find the Turks have violently turned against the Armenians.

English language films with multi-national casts representing non-English speaking characters are often problematic endeavours, although here the actors are race appropriate enough that it doesn’t detract from the film’s authenticity to a large degree. Yet neither is there anything about the film that truly engages the audience.

As a history lesson, there is plenty for the uninitiated to learn. There have been very few films that have dealt with this particular chapter of the past. Often though it feels like Irish writer director Terry George has tried to cram too much into The Promise. There’s an episodic structure to the narrative which doesn’t allow for any dramatic peaks.

George’s best work remains Hotel Rwanda, another film about genocide, which had a much tighter focus on real life events. Here, there is a lot of time spent on Mikael’s personal life, which in itself is fair enough, but then the story veers off and follows journalist Chris struggling to report to the Western world on the atrocities taking place in Turkey, while frequently we cut back to Ana being drawn to Mikael while Chris watches on jealously.

It’s well acted by the leads and it’s great to see Iranian actor Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Mikaels’ mother, and to hear her deep sultry voice. The Constantinople scenes look beautiful too, but there is so much going on that it all becomes a bit ho-hum. A scene involving a throng of Sirun citizens attempting to relocate out of harm’s way, should have been devastating, but even this is diluted by the film’s hurried pacing.

This is an old-fashioned historical drama, and a pretty expensive one at that. Its failure to be embraced by international audiences has ensured it place as one of this year’s biggest financial disasters.  


The Promise is currently in national release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee