The film follows an Armenian medical student Mikael (Oscar Isaac) studying in Constantinople during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. While there he falls for an Armenian-born French woman Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who’s in a relationship with an Associated Press reporter Chris Meyers (Christian Bale). After the First World War breaks out, Mikael is horrified to discover the Ottoman government beginning an extermination of the Armenian people, and he is thrust into the conflict.
It’s very important for historical films, especially when depicting such a great atrocity, to be careful and sensitive as to how its portrayed while also maintaining accuracy. For the most part, The Promise deals with this very well. The detail with which it shows the brutality of the army towards Armenian villagers is disturbing, as is the intensity of their power, and the danger to Mikael and his loved ones. I also really like how the film frames the events from his point of view. He doesn’t always know what’s going on and why, he’s just all of a sudden become a target merely for his regional ethnicity. He can’t even put a specific face to his misery. Additionally, the film doesn’t lose track of the frightful conditions it’s trying to relate.
Oscar Isaac is very good in this, possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen from him. He portrays the grief and confusion of his character thoroughly well and even has a convincing accent. Charlotte Le Bon, a Quebecois actress, is also good if lacking in agency. We see she cares about orphans and is generally kind, but don’t have a whole lot else to go on as to her personality. Christian Bale is pretty good too, elevating what would be an admirable but uninteresting resistance fighter in a lesser actors’ hands. Marwen Kenzari plays Emre, a friend of Mikael’s in Constantinople who goes through an interesting arc. The beautiful and genuinely Armenian Angela Sarafyan plays Mikael’s home-town betrothed, Maral, and James Cromwell makes a pleasant appearance as the American ambassador. The film also features Jean Reno (who I haven’t seen in a while), Rade Serbedzija, Shoreh Aghdashloo, and in an unfortunate bit of casting, Tom Hollander -a good English actor who should never play an Armenian captive.
The chief factor that hurts this movie is the love triangle. Love triangles are rarely a good thing in movies as they typically feel like manufactured drama. In this movie, the romantic scenes are almost just padding, and it never seems to indicate who Ana’s more in love with. And the presence of Mikael’s wife Maral from early on (a sweet character for what we see of her) complicates things further, making for a love quartet essentially. It also doesn’t help that though Isaac, Le Bon, and Bale are good actors on their own, they don’t have the believable chemistry, at least not enough to sell the kind of war romance the film is going for. Doctor Zhivago, when it first came out, was likewise criticized for its focus on a love triangle more than the Russian Revolution it was set against. But apart from clearly being a character-driven story, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie were wonderful together, making for what I still consider a great movie. The Promise doesn’t have that, and it’s a mark in its favour that the love triangle story is secondary to the story of the genocide.
My other qualm is that this film clearly wants to raise awareness of the extent of the Armenian Genocide the same way Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust, but George wrote a fictionalized story for it, and not a terribly original one at that. It still works, but I feel the impact would have resonated more if it was a true story being told. And there are definitely interesting true stories to tell. For example, Bale’s character has a lot in common with Armin Wegner, a German reporter and photographer stationed in Turkey who protested the slaughter. And Mehmet Celal Bey, a prominent politician, earned the moniker “the Turkish Oscar Schindler” for saving hundreds of Armenians in his resistance to the government. These stories would arguably lend more weight to a film for their basis in facts and it’s a shame George didn’t take that opportunity.
Nonetheless, The Promise is an important film if for nothing else, it’s honest portrayal of a series of massacres that should not be forgotten. It’s shot well, performed well, and it informs well. I wish the love triangle wasn’t there, or at least that it was portrayed differently; and I think a film about this subject matter would’ve worked better if conveyed with a true story (and again, I really dislike the title). However I have to acknowledge that the Armenian Genocide is not as widely known as other atrocities like the Holocaust, and it should be. A film like this is a good step towards that.