There are two movies fighting for control of Terry George’s attempt at a “topical” historical epic. The first, a scalding dramatization of the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 genocidal annihilation of its Armenian citizens, is everything you expect from the heartfelt committed director behind films like Hotel Rwanda and Some Mother’s Son. The second – the one that reduces the promise of The Promise to an old-fashioned, overblown Hollywood melodrama – is the fictional love triangle that trivializes a profound subject and drowns it in a tide of hokey sentiment.
Credit the producers, including the self-made Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who died in 2015 at 98, for treating the film as a passion project. That passion is still evident here – how could it not be? – as audiences watch in horror at the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, still refuses to recognize these mass killings as genocide – as does the U.S. The Promise has no such qualms, however, allowing us to bear witness to atrocities that foreshadow the rise of Hitler and the existential horror of the Holocaust.
What a shame, then, that the script by Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) feels the need to distract us with a bland, invented romance that doesn’t amount to hill of beans in this tormented world. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) takes the Dr. Zhivago-like role of Michael Boghosian, an Armenian medical student who makes a promise to marry a young woman (Angela Sarafyan) to help finance his studies in Constantinople. One of the temptations of the big city is Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a dance instructor heavily involved with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American reporter covering the hostilities for the Associated Press. Meanwhile, Armenians are evicted from their homes and death-marched through the desert as World War I looms.
And so the impediments to true love become the story instead of fading, as they should, into the background. The actors do what they can to keep their heads above the sudsy script. No go. It’s distressing to see a great subject go wrong in the right hands.
Watch ‘The Promise’ trailer here.