STARRING: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Giménez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Šerbedžija, Abel Folk, Andrew Tarbet, Angela Sarafyan, Armin Amiri, Marwan Kenzari, Yigal Naor, Garen Boyajian, Kvork Malikyan, Numan Acar, Roman Mitichyan, Jean Reno, Tom Hollander, Jean Claude Ricquebourg, James Cromwell, Alicia Borrachero, Milene Mayer Gutierrez, Ozman Sirgood and Michael Stahl-David
Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, The Promise follows a love triangle between Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris – a renowned American journalist based in Paris.
The Promise is set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, focusing on a medical student named Mikael travelling to Constantinople to attend the Imperial Medical Academy. There he meets Ana, who is involved in a relationship with American reporter for the Associated Press, Chris Myers. As Mikael begins to fall in love with Ana, tensions begin to rise in the country with the outbreak of World War I.
The Promise is a war romance film focusing on the last days of the Ottoman Empire, where tensions begin to rise with the outbreak of World War I. As we follow a young medical student, Mikael, meeting and beginning to fall for fellow Armenian, Ana, the American reporter she’s involved with, Chris Myers, documents the military buildup of the Ottoman Empire as well as the growing resentment of the Armenian people. The Promise was on my radar the moment I heard the film was going into production as though it may be projecting a love triangle at the forefront, it was the tragic background that caught my attention – the Armenian genocide. The Promise is a film that has been long in the mind of Kirk Kerkorian, the former owner of MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who was of Armenian extraction and whose family had lived through these events. Kerkorian not only had the idea for the film to tell the story about the Armenian genocide on the big screen, he also financed the film himself (almost $100m to be exact), who previously tried to get the film made in the 1980’s but he couldn’t even persuade his own studio chief Frank Yablans to greenlight this picture. Even now the genocide is a subject of much controversy as the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the death of one and a half million Armenian’s during the span of seven years (1915 – 1922) as a genocide, stating that it was a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. When The Promise premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September of last year, the film had received four thousand negative ratings on IMDB before the first audience had even left the screening. Before the films cinematic release, over 120,ooo people had voted on the ratings system on the site, with the votes practically even between the most selected ratings – 1/10 and 10/10.
The Promise is a film that has the feel of an epic war romance drama from the old age of Hollywood, meaning that it will be compared to the likes of Casablanca and Doctor Zhivago. From the distinct costume designs from Pierre-Yves Gayraud, to the cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe, The Promise is brimming with plenty of colourful from the start and shot along some gorgeous landscape and scenery, using the locations of Spain, Malta and Portugal to great effect. Terry George is no stranger to making a film set during a conflict (from penning Irish films In The Name of The Father, The Boxer and World War II drama Hart’s War, to writing and directing Irish film Some Mother’s Son and Hotel Rwanda which focused on the Rwandan genocide) and for the most part I thought he’s directing style was really good for the story that he was trying to tell, focusing on the characters and the genocide being told from their point of view, being that they witness the atrocities for themselves or hear about it from a fellow survivor. The performances from the main leads I thought was terrific. Oscar Isaac fully commits to the role of Armenian medical student Mikael Boghosian, a man who betroths himself to a young woman from a family of means in order to go to Constantinople to attend medical school and becomes smitten with fellow Armenian and dancer Ana, who is in a relationship herself with journalist Chris Myers. His facial reactions to the atrocities committed the people he interacts with and what he witnesses along his travel, including one powerful scene on a moving train and monologue about what he witnessed earlier to a group of fellow survivors, this performance can possibly be argued to be Oscar Isaac’s most powerful to date, cementing himself as one of the best actors working today. Charlotte Le Bon also provides a great performance as Ana, a woman torn between her loyalty to one and her intense feeling for another as Mikael and Chris are intertwined to compete for her affection and her performance brings joy to the screen as she becomes a mother figure for children survivors during the dark periods of the film. Christian Bale plays a character that on paper could’ve taken the cliched route of the man that looks to remove his rival to keep his woman (e.g. Titanic), but he becomes a much more three-dimensional, complex character as we get to see the heavy-drinker but noble heart venture out on his own documenting what the Turks are doing to the Armenians. He isn’t blind to the spark between Ana and Mikael, but he isn’t going to pout about it or give up on her without a fight, it’s somewhat refreshing in this day and age of cinema to see that. Looking at the supporting cast, Shohreh Aghdashloo is good as Mikael’s mother Marta and Marwan Kenzari is really good as Emre Ogan, the son of a high-level Turkish official that befriends Mikael and becomes torn as he’s forced to choose to standby his friends during the genocide which could result in execution, or follow orders and not bring shame to his fathers name.
While the film has intentions to educate audiences to the atrocities of the Armenian genocide, one could argue that it doesn’t quite go for the gut punch of other war films that came before it. There’s a few effective scenes that show the aftermath of what the Turks did to the Armenian population, but much like his previous film Hotel Rwanda, Terry George keeps it to a minimum here. The main issue for film viewers will be what head space they’re in when attending this film. If they’re here expecting an epic love story, it borderlines corny levels during the films runtime, especially when the three leads manage to find each other during the chaos when it would seem impossible, and if they’re here expecting a war story, the action front comes into the films final act and have to go through the romance plot and a few harrowing scenes to get there. Basically the film tries to find the balance in both these genres and so in the middle it will feel uneven and especially during the films second half, it will feel that it’s just dragging along. While I like the majority of the film from a technical standpoint, I will say that films night time scenes, especially during the moving train with Mikael and in the final act, I found to be incredibly distracting. By day the period drama looks beautiful and by night you’d suspect that Michael Mann came onboard with his lens to shoot digitally. It’ll be a minor nitpick to some but for me it just stood out like a sore thumb to me. I also thought Angela Sarafyan was underused in her role as Maral, the woman Mikael promises to betroth.
It’s not going to make a profit for the studio, but The Promise could make its mark as an educational tool in the future for those that never heard of the Armenian genocide and give them a brief glimpse to the crimes committed against the Armenian people. The love story may be too corny, but there is some powerful scenes here about the genocide with some really good directing, great cinematography and great performances from its leads Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon, as well as a powerful performance by Oscar Isaac. Even over 100 years after the genocide, it’s little moments such as someone mentioning that Armenians were fleeing to Aleppo, that seem timely now considering what is happening in Syria today highlights how history horrifically repeats itself. 7/10