Unnecessary love story brings down the beautiful, touching “Promise”

Justin Jones

The director of the acclaimed “Hotel Rwanda,” which chronicled the Rwandan Genocide in tragic detail, returns to historical filmmaking with “The Promise,” a sometimes-brutal look at the Armenian Genocide that gets bogged down in an unnecessary love story.

Terry George’s output since “Rwanda” has been a consistently disappointing mix of action B-movies and television. Though this is almost a return to form, his awful script holds the film back from true success.

Oscar Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian, an Armenian who lives in a small village in the Ottoman Empire. After becoming betrothed to a woman in the village, he takes the dowry and leaves to a two-year medical school so he can become the town’s first doctor.

This leads him to Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), a beautiful, rich Armenian woman living in Constantinople with her boyfriend, American journalist Christopher Myers (Christian Bale). This opening segment of the film is when the characters and the plot are at their best, though none of it feels terribly compelling.

As World War I breaks out, the Turks turn against the Armenians, and George turns the film on the audience. In one scene, it goes from an engaging romantic drama to a sprawling epic of a historic tragedy. Individually, these pieces work well, but together they leave the movie fractured.

Though a romantic period piece among adversity and racism works, a love triangle in the midst of the mass extermination of 1.5 million people is petty and trivial. George could have made this a statement on how humans cope or the ways they focus on themselves, and subsequently imbued the story with a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, it comes off as a case of the writer dumbing down his movie for the audience, as if no one will care about genocide without an emotional hook. It is truly disappointing, because the lead trio of actors really commit, with Oscar Isaac in particular utilizing his charm in equal balance with despair.

One aspect of the film that must be mentioned is the controversy and political implications around it. Entirely in the English language, the movie is obviously made for a Western audience, but its global and historical subject matter put it in a political light. The official Turkish state’s continuous denial of the existence of the Armenian Genocide has prompted an international debate, with many taking up for the film and many others boycotting, all even before it hits theaters. 

The latter portion of “The Promise” takes on all the beats of a Holocaust film, with Armenian Christians suffering at the hands of the Turks. Religion is not as prevalent here as it is in many Holocaust films, but “The Promise” definitely wants the viewer to know its leads are Christians. The lead characters’ explicit religious ties create a movie that seems tone deaf to the current political moment. The tragedy of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable, but it feels irresponsible to make a movie for an American audience in 2017 about institutionalized Muslim discrimination against Christians.

That is not to say none of the over two hour runtime is without its merits; George’s direction is still competent and the acting and cinematography somewhat redeem the film. Isaac, Bale and Le Bon each deliver convincing portrayals, bringing levels of nuance to their characters that seem absent from the script.

The camera work in “The Promise” is undeniably beautiful, even while capturing devastating images of suffering. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe gives the entire film a grandiose, sweeping texture that makes every frame feel like it genuinely means something. It is unfortunate that the rest of the film fails to match Aguirresarobe’s artistry.

“The Promise”

  • Rating: PG-13
  • Runtime: 132 minutes
  • Score: 3/5 stars