2017, PG-13, 132 min. Directed by Terry George. Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan, James Cromwell, Marwan Kenzari, Rade Serbedzija, Tom Hollander, Igal Naor, Jean Reno.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 21, 2017
Comparisons between Terry George’s new film The Promise and his 2004 award-winner Hotel Rwanda are evident from the outset. This director, who is fond of telling intimate stories set against the sweep of history, reprises the formula here, again finding the human drama amid a modern genocidal atrocity. If the formula doesn’t work as well this time out, it may just be a matter of the pattern getting too creaky and predictable. Yet the film and its harrowing depiction of the too-little-examined genocide of the Armenian Turks – an extermination at the beginning of World War I that the country of Turkey will not admit to this day – is a respectable offering. Even if the idea of giving focus to a romantic triangle as the narrative lure for a broader depiction of ethnic cleansing is a disheartening comment on the nature of our film consumption, The Promise far outdistances the other recent love story set against the Armenian genocide: The Ottoman Lieutenant, a subpar movie in every respect.
The inclusion of Hollywood stars, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, as two of the points in the movie’s love triangle will certainly boost box-office interest. Wispy Charlotte Le Bon (who played the girlfriend of Philippe Petit in The Walk) plays their love interest. In 1914, Mikael (Isaac) is a young Armenian pharmacist who wants to become a doctor and decides to marry a village girl (Sarafyan) and use the dowry to pay for his education. At his uncle’s home in Constantinople, he meets Ana (Le Bon), who tutors his young cousins. An Armenian who has lived abroad, she has returned to her homeland to reconnect with her roots, although Mikael soon learns that she is also the steady companion of the American journalist Chris Myers (Bale), an AP reporter covering the mass exterminations in the hope of pricking the American conscience to take sides in the conflict (a reluctance that marks America’s noninvolvement in Turkish politics to this day). Although the love story anchors the film (whose screenplay was written by The Jane Austen Book Club’s Robin Swicord), it does not clutter the foreground. The emotional underpinnings of The Promise are fused with the atrocities shown onscreen rather than the question of who wins the girl.
George effectively uses large swaths of extras to depict the magnitude of a village’s exodus march from their homes and the mass executions. Ironically, some of the film’s most emotional scenes belong to the slender storyline of Turkish rich kid Emre (Kenzari), whose two attempts to help his non-Turk friends results in drastic personal consequences. Numerous reports have come in regarding meddling by Turkish partisans who have not seen the film but, for political reasons, are willing to badmouth and downgrade the film’s rating on review aggregate sites. (Reports also indicate that some sites have enacted remedies for the defamation.) The Promise may not be the greatest movie of its type since Hotel Rwanda, but purchasing a ticket to this solid if predictable movie is a sure way to thumb one’s nose at deniers of the Armenian Genocide.