Directed by: Terry George
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality.
2 hrs. 12 mins.
Let me start by saying this film’s subject matter is a cinematic hot potato, which to this day still draws strong views from families whose countries were part of World War I.
During this war, Turkey is alleged to have exterminated 1.5 million Armenians. For generations, Armenians have cried foul about an international coverup. The Turkish government has never officially acknowledged its involvement.
I’m not questioning or examining the authenticity of this event. This isn’t a historian’s column. This is about the movie The Promise; what it offers, what it doesn’t.
To be fair, The Promise is loosely based in history, but it’s a fictitious version of events. You won’t find bios about Mikael Boghosian, Ana Khesarian or Chris Myers in any history book. What you will find is an actual rescue of Armenians by the French Navy in 1915 at a place called Musa Dagh. This event was turned into a novel called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel in 1933.
So now that I’ve exhausted my disclaimer, on to the movie. In short, this is a story that seems to be doubling as a drama and a documentary. It tries to draw us into its characters while making it clear that an actual genocide happened, something akin to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, except, of course, Schindler was real. The Promise is a mixture of broad history and fiction.
Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) runs an apothecary in a small village in southern Turkey. His ambition to go to medical school pushes him to be engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), whose family provides the couple with 400 gold coins. With dowry in hand, Mikael can attend medical school in Constantinople.
While living with his Uncle Mesrob (Igal Naor), he meets a beautiful French-Armenian tutor, Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), and despite his betrothal, falls in love. Ana, however, is also the lover of noted AP journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale).
When World War I breaks out, the three lovers are thrown in all directions. Ana in particular is torn between her love for Mikael and Chris. Because of the impact of the war, she becomes attached at various stages to each man.
The war takes its toll. Mikael is thrown into a prison camp. Ana follows Chris to a Christian orphanage. Chris is thrown in jail for his journalism. Ana becomes one of the children’s caretakers.
There is a point here. It’s just that the story weaves around like a drunk driver in a parking lot. It’s manufactured to draw sympathy to all three lovers. At the same time, history is exploding around them and they must sacrifice personal attachments to help each other. Suffice it to say, it’s not a smooth fit. Love and history keep stepping on each other’s toes.
There is an Oscar-caliber cast here, and a good story to be told, but something about the breadth of the movie seems to interfere with the actual telling.
What’s worse, good actors pop in and out of their roles as if director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) feels he needs to keep beefing up the cast to have enough star power. Pros like Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tom Hollander are cut-outs. Hello, goodbye, with barely a blink.
I wish I had better news. This story deserves better and, if you feel so inclined, can be viewed as a fitting reminder of the atrocities that leaked rivers of blood during World War I. But while it closes strongly, it throws away its momentum with a predictable weepy ending.
The Promise only delivers sporadically. It’s like reading a large, convoluted book with some of the chapters missing. There’s more to the story than what you find here. Unfortunately, whatever was originally promised about this film has gone missing.