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The Promise Review: Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale Take on Armenian Genocide

By Julian Roman — April 19th, 2017

The Promise is an imperfect, but extremely compelling historical drama about the Armenian Genocide. The subject matter is gut wrenching, a brutal account of a rarely addressed crime. The film is written and directed by Terry George, who previously tackled the subject of government sanctioned murder in the harrowing Hotel Rwanda. The Promise does not reach the bar of that masterpiece. It has a high production value and is well acted, but plays out like a soap opera. The narrative issues are problematic in a filmmaking sense. However, the story told is necessary and pertinent for modern times. Humanity still turns a blind eye as atrocities are broadcast daily.

The Promise opens in rural Turkey at the start of World War I. The Ottoman Empire has aligned itself with Germany. Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael, a humble and earnest Armenian village apothecary. Engaged to marry the beautiful Maral (Angela Sarafyan), he uses her family's dowry to attend medical school in Istanbul. Mikael's uncle and patron introduces him to the mesmerizing Ana (Charlotte LeBon), a captivating music teacher. Life in the capital is a cosmopolitan whirlwind.

Mikael's friendship with Ana does not go unnoticed by her boyfriend, Chris Myers (Christian Bale); a famous American reporter with the Associated Press. As the clouds of war darken the Turkish horizon, Mikael grapples with his blossoming feelings for Ana. Thoughts of love and happiness become flights of fancy as the Turkish government begins a violent crackdown of Armenian intellectuals. Mikael, Ana, and Chris are swept up in a maelstrom of terror. The Ottoman Turks embark on a systematic campaign to cleanse the Armenian population from their territory.

The period setting of pre-war Istanbul is opulently documented by Terry George. It's a lavish parade of high society and intellectualism that marks a stark contrast once the bloodshed begins. This is the most effective part of The Promise. As the story leads into the mass incarceration and forced movement of the Armenians, the audience clearly senses the loss of civilization in a place that supposedly embraced it. The Promise is a mega-budget film and uses its money wisely to lay the groundwork for the carnage that follows.

The primary issue with the film is the way the love triangle unfolds. It is meant to be the glue that carries the audience to a major historical event depicted. It sadly muddles the plot with forced melodrama. I can appreciate the use of romance and tragedy as a storytelling vehicle. Where George goes wrong is the set-up and emphasis. On one hand, some aspects are obvious, while others are just unnecessary. It is an overdrawn well in the context of such an important film. George already establishes gravitas. He goes too deep with the romance and it unfortunately becomes a distraction.

Oscar Isaac delivers a powerhouse performance. He is such a versatile, capable actor. Mikael is the pillar of The Promise, a modest and gallant character. His trials and desperate struggle for survival is riveting. The Promise has him as the central character, but he is not always in focus as George explores the other ensemble. I believe the film would have been better served by keeping him always in frame. This is why Roman Polanski's The Pianist is so brilliant, the film kept an eagle eye on the lead. It made the sense of loss more impactful.

The female characters are hit and miss. The choice between Ana and Maral is Mikael's initial dilemma before plain survival. Ana is fully realized, while Maral, equally important in my eyes, is not nearly as much. While their romantic travails are problematic, George's depiction of the violence against women is not. He rightly shines a glaring spotlight on the despicable evils Armenian women were subjugated too. One particular scene is so disturbing, it had me on the verge of tears.

From Open Road and Producer Kirk Kerkorian, The Promise has its issues; but is a must see. This abhorrent crime against the Armenian people, and Turkey's dismal failure to this day in acknowledging it, needs discussion. Murder of this magnitude can never be forgotten or dismissed. The Promise is a long needed tribute and historical reckoning for the 1.5 million people killed. The Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and now Syria, it speaks volumes to the nature of man that these events continue.

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