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Review: The Promise (2017)

The Promise (2017)

Directed by: Terry George

Premise: During the outbreak of World War I, a rural apothecary (Oscar Isaac), a high society woman (Charlotte Le Bon), and an American reporter (Christian Bale) get involved in a love triangle amid the Armenian genocide.

What Works: The Promise takes place against one of the most contentious historical events of the twentieth century and the filmmakers do an admirable job creating the context. Much of the early action of the movie takes place in Constantinople which is a diverse and interreligious community. As World War I breaks out that all falls apart and the film dramatizes how war can whip up nationalist and xenophobic sentiments without belaboring the point. Although this is an interreligious conflict between Muslims and Christians the filmmakers allow for some nuance and complexity. That’s primarily seen in the young Muslim played by Marwan Kenzari who assists the heroes and risks his own life to get his friends to safety. The Promise has some impressive production values. Much of the film takes place outdoors and the landscape is well photographed. The setting appears organic and lived-in rather than the artificial look of some costume dramas. The film also has a likable cast. Oscar Isaac plays the lead as a medical student who is betrothed to someone in his village only to meet the woman of his dreams when he travels to Constantinople. Charlotte Le Bon is also well cast as a free spirited woman who is torn between Isaac’s character and an American reporter played by Christian Bale. The story of the reporter is the best part of The Promise; Bale’s character is by far the most interesting of the entire cast and the sequences in which he travels into danger to document the Ottoman Empire’s crimes against humanity are the most exciting in the film. Whether it is intentional or not, the parallels between the Armenian genocide and the contemporary humanitarian crisis in Syria are impossible to ignore, particularly the name-dropping of then Ottoman and now Syrian locations such as Aleppo. Taken that way, The Promise is a provocative and relevant story.

What Doesn’t: The Promise is a movie that’s been made in an older style. The filmmaking is less like contemporary studio pictures and much more like the epics of Hollywood’s past such as Doctor Zhivago or A Passage to India. This is most obvious in the love story. Like a lot of the classic David Lean pictures, The Promise is a love triangle set against epic historical events. The romance never quite takes off. The affair between Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon’s characters is credible but not especially passionate. That flaw is even worse in the relationship between Le Bon and Christian Bale’s characters. Love triangles are about people torn between two choices and these stories typically center upon the person at the center of that choice, in this case Charlotte Le Bon’s character. But The Promise is really the story of Oscar Isaac’s medical student. He has a love triangle of his own between the woman he met in Constantinople and the bride he left behind in his village, played by Angela Sarafyan. She’s not much of a character—we don’t know anything about her—and so the love triangle isn’t much of a choice. As a movie about genocide, The Promise fumbles important aspects of its subject matter. Director Terry George had previously helmed Hotel Rwanda and so it’s a surprise that The Promise doesn’t impact the viewer in a visceral way as the 2004 movie did. More problematically, The Promise uses genocide as a way of resolving its love triangles. Instead of illustrating the tragedy of the Armenian genocide, this cheapens the historical and political point of the movie and comes across as a callous and lazy storytelling decision.

Bottom Line: The Promise is a likable enough movie, which is an odd thing to say about a movie about genocide. Given its subject matter, The Promise ought to be a more traumatic experience than it is but the film succeeds in being an old fashioned historical romance. 

Episode: #646 (May 7, 2017)