[Note: This is a re-post of my The Promise review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens in theaters on Friday, April 21st.]
Director Terry George is no stranger to genocide stories. The filmmaker chronicled the Rwandan genocide in memorable fashion with 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, and now he turns his attention to the Armenian genocide in the sweeping historical drama The Promise. While this is absolutely a story worth telling, in the hands of George (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Swicord), The Promise ends up feeling very old fashioned in a bad way. It’s bloated, it’s sweeping, there’s a love triangle, and there are four-too-many endings. But since there’s so much movie there, there’s also quite a bit that works—including lead performances from Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save the whole ship, and in the end, the film turns out to be disappointingly unremarkable.
The film begins in 1914, in a little village in southern Anatolia where Michael (Isaac) an Armenian apothecary, becomes betrothed to a young woman so he can use the dowry to go study medicine in the capital, after which he’ll return to the village (and his bride) and set up shop. But when Michael makes it to the big city, he crosses paths with Ana, a Paris-educated Armenian who is serving as a tutor for the young girls of the Armenian family that has opted to house Michael during his studies.
Michael quickly strikes up a flirtation with Ana, but she’s already involved with an American journalist for the Associated Press, Chris (Bale), who is highly intelligent and maybe a little brash. Meanwhile, at the medical college, Michael becomes fast friends with a young Turkish student who is only studying medicine so his father doesn’t make him enlist in the army.
Shortly after Michael’s arrival, the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers, and the city erupts into chaos as Turks begin rounding up any and all Armenians—starting with the intelligent and influential. Michael’s medical student friend attempts to help him, but Michael unfortunately finds himself ensnared and sent off to a prison labor camp, where he witnesses some of the genocide’s horrors firsthand.
The first half of the film or so is actually a quite effective historical drama, drawing nice lines of tension and familiarity among the various Armenians and Turks in the big city. It’s when the film slows down and focuses on the love triangle between Michael, Ana, and Chris that it starts to meander, and subsequently George bites off more than he can chew, moving the story to far off places that, while important from a historical standpoint, don’t necessarily pace well with the film’s narrative.
Indeed, The Promise succeeds in fits and starts—there are moments when it’s really good, really interesting, and even really emotional; then there are moments when it’s very, very boring. It’s probably not a coincidence that my mind started to wander to thoughts of The English Patient as the film progressed. This very much feels like the kind of mediocre movie that wins the Best Picture Oscar in the mid-90s.
The performances are quite solid, however. Isaac does a swell job of leading the film as its protagonist, and Le Bon does nice work considering her character doesn’t have all that much to do beyond being an emotional connection to Michael and Chris. And Bale, predictably, does some interesting work here, and it’s not hard to see why the role of Chris appealed to the Oscar-nominated performer. He’s a headstrong journalist leading the charge in exposing this Armenian genocide to the world while the Turkish government denies any such thing, and he goes to great lengths to get (and preserve) a story.
Of course, the Armenian genocide is a very important point of history, and while this kind of romantic epic worked well in the past, there are far more interesting (and affecting) ways of chronicling such a vital true story. The soap-y aspects of The Promise only serve to deter focus from the real horrors that are ongoing, and while this cast shines when given serious emotional moments, the earned moments are few and far between. The film struggles to find an ending, opting to cover more territory than this narrative can handle, resulting in a feeling of listlessness during what should be an intense and emotional conclusion.
There’s nothing wrong with old fashioned if done the right way, but The Promise feels like the kind of film that’s out of date. While performances from Bale, Isaac, and Le Bon keep the film engaging, and while George covers some fascinating ground during the movie’s first half, it loses steam and fails to recover, succumbing to its more sappy ways that undermine the seriousness of the matter at hand. Sometimes there’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like they used to.