I’m embarrassed to admit, I walked into The Promise knowing virtually nothing of the Armenian genocide committed by Turkey in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, during and following World War I. I suspect writer-director Terry George, who brought the horrific plight of Tutsi refugees to American audiences with his Academy Award-nominated Hotel Rwanda, expects as much from his viewers. It’s a grim subject that’s too grotesque to fully comprehend: 1.5 million Armenian men, women, and children, driven from their homes, often out in to the desert, slaughtered, and then discarded in mass graves. It’s too much, too terrible. So George and co-writer Robin Swicord (Practical Magic, The Jane Austen Book Club make it the backdrop of The Promise, then focus on a simple story, a love-triangle between three brave and deeply good people who witnessed hell on Earth, but fought against it for a future worth living for.
Dropping his signature swagger, Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael Boghosian, an Armenian Christian who comes from a long line of apothecaries, but dreams of being a fully trained doctor. To secure the school fees, he promises himself to a local lovely, and plans to use the dowry to fund his way through medical school in Constantinople. Mikael’s dreams are modest. He will become a doctor who can better serve his humble village. He will grow to love his intended. He will be happy. But life is what happens when we make other plans, for better and for much much worse.
In Constantinople, Mikael is enchanted not only with academia and the grandeur of this great city, but also by a vivacious Armenian artist named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). Her laughter is like music. Her dancing is divine. And her mind is as sharp as anyone he’s every known. While attempting to focus on his studies and his future, Mikael falls for her. Which is bad news for her beau, outspoken American reporter for the Associate Press Chris Myers (Christian Bale). But these rivals share a grudging respect for each other, and become allies when the Turkish government begins forcing hardy Armenian men into work camps, and every other Armenian onto foreboding journeys from their homes.
The Promise follows Mikael, Ana, and Chris as they fight back against this racist regime, by spiriting orphans away from certain extinction, composing prose meant to incite the Americans into life-saving actions, or joining refugees besieged in unkind mountains in their fight against relentless Turks, who won’t rest until every Armenian in Turkey is dead. To George and Swicord’s credit, the love story device provides an easy path to jump from one location and plight of the Armenians to another, all while grounding this inhumane horror in an intimate human story. Through Mikael’s eyes, we see the glory of a Turkey united across lines of race and religion. Then we see the dramatic shift, and its resulting tragedies. One particularly heartbreaking sequence involves Tom Hollander playing an Armenian clown with a Turk’s bullet caught in his cheek, under eerie scar tissue. In a few short minutes, Hollander—hidden behind a grizzled beard, but eyes alive with a volatile energy—paints a simple and heartbreaking story of a world ripped to shreds. Mikael is left to witness this, and pick up its pieces.
This is an ambitious film, aiming to educate audiences of the atrocities endured by the Armenian people, to warn us of the pattern of oppression mounting to eradication, and inspire us with survivors’ stories. But in looking to the forest, George and Swicord lose their trees. Their love story—that is the central plot of this history-inspired drama—feels undercooked. The first act of The Promise races to set up Mikael, his family, his village, his fiancée, and his journey to Constantinople. Then it throws Ana into the mix, and takes for granted the actual build of this tricky love triangle, bounding from flirting glances to tense ones, then sex and unspoken heartbreak. And so this love story lacks heart, overshadowed instead by this trio’s noble efforts to rebel against this nightmarish murder spree. Instead of a fiery romance, The Promise’s love story manages only a low boil. And far from the fault of its actors—who vibrate with intensity and suitably restrained passion and pain—it’s the fault of too little screen time.
The Promise clocks in at 2 hours and 12 minutes, a seemingly substantial runtime. But with a surrounding story so massive, and a love story so nuanced, the film would have been better served with a longer runtime that’d allow its richness to steadily unravel instead of being rushed. As it is, this film is well-intentioned, educational, shocking, and occasionally poignant. But I imagine with the luxury of a 3-hour-plus runtime like the World War I-set romance Doctor Zhivago, George could have brewed a stronger, deeper emotional core that’d have carried his good intentions with an arousing and unforgettable romance. Sadly this could-have-been classic has been trimmed to mediocrity.