“The Promise” is fantastic as a historical film documenting the genocide of the Armenian people committed by the Ottoman Turkish Empire during World War I. But as a romance? Not so much.
The film stars Oscar Isaac as Mikael, a young man who agrees to marry one of the rich women from his small village in Armenia in order to secure 400 gold coins as a dowry. With this money, he travels to Constantinople to attend medical school. There he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian raised in Paris who teaches dance to Mikael’s cousins and who is in a relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a writer for The Associated Press.
The country is soon swept into World War I, and the government begins rounding up Armenians, some for extermination and others for deportation. Mikael falls in love with Ana as the violence reaches Constantinople, but their romance is short-lived when Mikael attempts to save his uncle from imprisonment and is sent to a prison labor camp. After several months, Mikael escapes, and he must find a way not only to survive the genocide of his people but also to resolve his feelings for Ana.
When viewed as a historical documentation, “The Promise” delivers on almost every front. The Turkish government has never admitted to the horrific crimes of the Armenian genocide, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923; acknowledgement of it by the media helps bring awareness to the world that it happened and in turn holds the Turkish government, the successors of the Ottoman Empire and the consistent deniers of the genocide, responsible. I appreciate that “The Promise” is frank and open with its violence, never hiding the barbarity with which the Armenian people were persecuted.
With such importance and gravity already embedded in the film’s story, I can’t understand why director Terry George decided to focus the advertisement of the film on the romantic aspect because when viewed as a whole, “The Promise” is much more of a war drama than a love story. The trite love triangle is there, of course, but it fades almost entirely into the background compared to the atrocities shown on the screen, so much so that it might as well have not been there at all.
Though the cast is somewhat wasted on the love portions of “The Promise,” their performances are engaging and often heart-wrenching. Isaac is brilliant as Mikael, bringing gravitas and passion to his role in everything from the manner in which he delivers his lines down to his intense gazes and quirks of his mouth. Le Bon is equally excellent as Ana, whose compassion and beauty makes it easy to see why Mikael falls in love with her.
Bale feels more shoved to the sidelines as Myers, even with plenty of screen time. His dedication to documenting the crimes against the Armenians to show the world is admirable but is far less convincing compared to the horrors Mikael faces. There is even a moment where Mikael finally says to Myers, “It must be nice to know you can return home to America and write your stories.” This seems like a reminder to the audience as well as to Myers of how much smaller Myers’ sacrifices as a journalist are compared to Mikhael’s as a genocide survivor.
Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography brings depth and beauty to the story, with breathtaking, expansive shots of the sea to intimate close-ups of the suffering Armenians. The film was shot on location in Portugal, Malta and Spain, and the film makes use of the settings to stunning effect.
Ultimately, I hope “The Promise” is remembered as a war film. The stark portrayal of what the Armenian people suffered deserves to be known; hopefully this film will help bring awareness and put pressure on the Turkish government to both acknowledge and make reparations for these crimes.
Feel free to forget about the love triangle, though.