War movies are a regular staple of the movie world, which we see released every year. Sadly, even movies about genocide are becoming more commonplace. Most are decent, but it becomes increasingly difficult for war movies to stand out as a result.
The Promise is one of those movies that looks to stand out from the crowd, though perhaps not because of its style or angle, but more purely because of its subject matter. Whereas most war movies focus on the events of World War 1 and 2, The Promise instead takes us to 1910s Turkey to focus on the Armenian Genocide instead.
The Armenian Genocide is one of those tragic events in history that is little publicized and recognized despite the incredible depravity of the events rivalling the holocaust of World War 2. The Promise looks to change all that by bringing the plight of the Armenian genocide to the big screen. Sadly, the film didn’t quite achieve its purpose as it mostly tanked at the box office, but hopefully it can gain some life through its DVD release and be seen by more people.
As a war film that harrowingly displays the genocide of a race of people, The Promise can easily live up there with many of the best films of its type. It’s perhaps a little light on raw combat, but is heavy in its portrayal of brutality and draws you in to the despair of its characters remarkably well. The film achieves this by not trying to get too caught up in the greater war effort or vast battle scenes, but instead focusing on a small group of people as they fight for their survival. To perhaps clarify further, it will more than likely move you emotionally about the genocide and the lives lost than it will envelop your senses as a war film.
Director Terry George (who co-writes alongside Robin Swicord) has created some tight emotional drama around the production’s beautifully scenic backdrops that keep the film pretty to look at, without distracting you too much from the emotional heart of the story. The story focuses on its small set of main characters and how they each experience the genocide in different ways.
There is Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an apothecary who moves to Constantinople to study medicine, but not before he vows to return and marry the daughter of a wealthy neighbour who will be funding his studies. However, once in Constantinople, he befriends Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian woman from Paris and her American suitor (Christian Bale) who is in the country to report on the Ottoman empire.
Needless to say, the Ottoman Empire’s plans for genocide interfere with their intentions and they all end up trying to fight their plight in many ways. There is a lot more going on in the story, but the script focuses on the leads as much as possible, creating high emotion through their experiences rather than trying to desensitize the viewer from other details of the war.
However, as much as The Promise is a war movie, it is also trying to be a love story and this is where some of its cracks start to show. Much like how Titanic was a remarkable technical achievement showing the horror of the ship’s tragic sinking, but forced you to watch the frequently iffy romance to get through it, The Promise unfortunately does the same thing.
It is perhaps a little more realistic and covers a wider period of time to make its relationships feel more believable, but the film’s characters lack a lot of chemistry and the love story has an almost forced pacing as a result of it trying to be shoehorned into the bigger story. Indeed, the very reason the film is called The Promise relates to a romantic promise made in the early part of the film. It feels a little pointless as it actually gets fulfilled rather early on before the film focuses more extensively on their escape efforts. It’s not a terrible story, but one that probably didn’t need to be there.
There is more than enough motivation and story for the film to drive its purpose forward without the need for characters trying to be involved in a love triangle. Given the grimness of the events, it also feels a little insensitive to the cause.
This lack of chemistry though is through no fault of its actors who are simply superb. Oscar Isaac in particular as the Armenian medical student caught in the middle of both war and love does a superb job with not only the accent, but in conveying the full emotional despair of his character. Similarly, both Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale, while perhaps not having as good material to work with, continue to provide the film with a lot of heart. The dialogue in the film is perhaps not its strong point and there are several times when the actors end up having to deliver beyond it to pull you into this story.
You shouldn’t be watching The Promise for its love story though and while it does feel tacked on, it doesn’t detract from the grimness of the war and the strong message the film is trying to convey about the Armenian genocide. Hopefully it can start a trend for many other films to follow in showing this piece of at-times disputed history and bring it to more general acceptance.
The Promise is a grandiose and powerful war film that deserves to be seen if just for its unique subject matter. The love story that the script is built upon is not strong, but watchable enough to not exactly make you regret the investment you make in the movie. It’s a gritty film that’s not going to leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, but its grim tale is powerful enough to win you over to its cause.
Last Updated: December 13, 2017