Movie Review: The Promise

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A medical student is separated from the woman he loves by the Armenian genocide.

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Terry George, 2016

Small town apothecary’s son Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) longs to become a doctor. His Armenian family living in Turkey is poor, so he becomes betrothed to a rich man’s daughter for the dowry and use the money to study medicine in Constantinople, promising to return one day. While in the big city he meets and falls in love with Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), the Armenian tutor of his cousins. Ana is herself in a relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist she met in Paris. Their flirtations are cut short when the Turkish government begins attacking its own Armenian citizens. Michael is forced to go on the run to save his own life, while Chris travels across the country documenting the genocide and Ana tries to save as many of her people as she can.

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The Armenian genocide is a highly controversial topic; to this day, the Turkish government denied the tragedy even happened. As a result, the release of this film was highly contested; it’s a testament to its fervent supporters that it managed a wide release. Unfortunately, the film’s central love story is unworthy of the important and tragic backdrop against which it’s set. The earnestness of The Promise creates problems that its filmmakers never quite overcome. The promise itself makes our protagonist pretty difficult to like from the outset; he wants to be a doctor, so he promises to marry Maral, a girl he doesn’t love, as long as he gets enough cash to get what he wants out of the deal. Then, as soon as he reaches his rich uncle in the big society, he’s immediately sucked up into the high life and an attraction to Ana. We’ve now established him as a gold digger and a potential cheater, so the film has to work twice as hard to make Michael likeable. Meanwhile, Chris is by far the most confusing character in the film, because we have to want Ana to cheat on him while also seeing much of the horror of the genocide through his morally upstanding journalistic eye. Christian Bale flounders from borderline abusive to downright heroic as the scene demands, without ever managing to make the character as a while work. Meanwhile, there’s always something sickly about Maral; she’s doomed from the start, in order to make the story succeed. The movie is so bogged down in this love quadrangle that it weakens the impact of the horrors inflicted against the Armenian people, with scenes of war crimes immediately followed by melodramatic confessions.

That isn’t to say there’s nothing to like about The Promise. The three central performances are excellent. The relatively unknown Charlotte Le Bon finds her footing with Ana, making her lively and likeable, and the film restrains from overly sexualising her. Christian Bale, of whom I’m not always a fan, does particularly well at the hard-bitten journalist side of Chris; the drunken jerk side seems a little phoned in. Oscar Isaac holds the fort admirably, making it almost impossible to hate Michael despite his more questionable choices, and always steers just the right side of scenery-chewing as his situation becomes more and more desperate. There are some truly tense and scary moments, some horrifying moments of violence, and there’s real fear for the characters at some moments. Unfortunately, Terry George’s desire to make sure we see every single horror inflicted upon the Armenians throws Michael from one way too convenient plot point to another with little time to breathe. The script has some really dire dialogue, and there are some filmmaking hiccups that are hard to look past – weird shifts in perspective, losing track of major characters and plot points, and camerawork that’s so confusing as to shake the audience out of the movie completely. The low budget is felt keenly when the film can’t quite meet its epic ambitions. It’s a shame, because The Promise could have been hard-hitting drama, but is instead muddling melodrama.

The Promise on IMDb

 

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