The Promise review: a handsomely illustrated Wikipedia page on the Armenian genocide
Director: Terry George; Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Igal Naor, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan, Jean Reno, James Cromwell, Tom Hollander, Marwan Kenzari. 12A cert; 133 mins.
Reviewing the budget for a film as expensive, and doomed, as The Promise perhaps feels like a low blow. Everything it’s trying to be – a David Lean-ian historical epic set against the barely-addressed backdrop of the 1915 Armenian genocide – needs scale, heft and star power. These are pricey. (The film cost some $90m.)
In its dreams, it’s the form of handsome period opus Anthony Minghella might be making if he hadn’t died, borrowing from his work a composer (Gabriel Yared), producer (William Horberg) and the sort of star pedigree (Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale) to confer a gritty importance.
It’s all entirely unembarrassing – touchingly played, in its better moments, and plunging us into the era’s heartbreak with some emotional force. What it lacks is original artistry, or a foreground story worth all the fuss.
The script, written to order by Robin (Benjamin Button) Swicord and tweaked substantially by the director, Hotel Rwanda’s Terry George, still feels like holding copy: insert love quadrangle here, open windows here, here, and here on the brutal pogrom against the Armenian people which Turkey still denies occurred.
So, on the eve of World War I, Turkish-Armenian apothecary Mikael (a hard-working Isaac) travels from his family’s village to train as a doctor in Constantinople, using the dowry he has won by proposing to a rich neighbour’s daughter (Angela Sarafyan). In the city, he falls in love with Charlotte Le Bon’s Ana, a beautiful, bewildered dance teacher who is herself pledged to Chris (Bale), an American war reporter just beginning to learn of the evacuations, and worse, being visited against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian populace.
The two couples are thrown hither and thither by the ensuing chaos, witnesses to mass slaughter who rarely feel like active agents in anything much. Just when this passivity is becoming a problem, George stages an unconvincing scrap with Ottoman soldiers next to a bunch of felled fruit carts. And the wider context is often botched, too. Even now, the federal US government doesn’t officially recognise the genocide, so it’s galling to witness a film which goes out of its way to present American characters, like Bale’s crusading journo, but also James Cromwell’s stern US ambassador, as watchmen on the right side of history.
The actors aren’t to blame, even if Isaac, with his Omar Sharif-like brooding presence, is eventually defeated by his multiple scenes of wailing and grief. Mikael’s desperate ride on a night-time transport train, which turns out to be hastening his starving people to their fates, is one of the few sequences whose cinematic vigour a Minghella or Spielberg might have signed off on.
Alongside the up-and-coming Marwan Kenzari, playing the token Turk who isn’t all bad, it’s Bale who lends most grit to this oyster: he musses up the scenery as best he can, making Chris an alcoholic malcontent chafing in his relationship and career.
He’s no Billy Zane in Titanic, but the script doesn’t dare suggest that Mikael and Ana’s happiness hinges somewhat on getting him out of the way. Everyone’s motives are swallowed up by the horrors of the backdrop, and there’s only one scene of genuine animus between the two men, a conflict which could have driven this whole story usefully forward.
Intellectually, it’s all less than nourishing, a sweeping pageant of atrocities which gives no single player an ideologically complex role or asks any difficult questions. The film was the passion project of the late mogul Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American who put the budget together and clearly hoped it would highlight this neglected episode for a mass audience.
As a history lesson, it’s both undisguised and elementary, an illustrated Wikipedia page which said audience can sense is tragically good for them a mile off. Nobly intended as it may all be, it’s a little too lifeless to hit home.