When it comes to portraying real life tragedies, horror stories from history, films usually have good intentions. Most of the time, however, and especially when dealing with an area like the Ottoman Empire, filled with conflict and strife, films miss the point. “The Promise,” aside from being ethnically miscast, as Hollywood is wont to do, wants to be several things at once–a war movie, a romance, a period drama–and is never able to get a grasp on any of these to make a film that is profound or meaningful.
Set right before World War I and before the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, aspiring doctor Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) moves from his small town to the booming city life of Constantinople to attend medical school. While there, he meets and falls in love with fellow Armenian, Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon) and her American journalist boyfriend, Chris Myers (Christian Bale). “The Promise” fools you into thinking the story is about a love triangle, but it isn’t. As tensions rise between the Turks and the Armenians, Mikael is forced to leave medical school to work in terrible conditions mining explosives for the Turks. He gets away and settles back into his hometown, where his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) convinces him to marry the woman to whom he had previously been betrothed. However, complications arise when they’re all forced to migrate to Aleppo, leaving behind the only home they’d ever known.
In many instances, “The Promise” moves from one scene to another and feels choppy in its execution. The tensions between the Armenian and Turkish population is brought up several times, but it never feels like the film itself has a firm grasp on the events. It introduces several characters who become somewhat integral to the film’s ending, but aside from helping briefly, they never feel a part of the larger setting and scope of the narrative. The love story, and I mean that very loosely, is minimal and never hits all of the right emotional beats. “The Promise” disguises itself as a period romance with a possible love triangle conflict, but none of that comes to pass. Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon’s characters fall in love after a few brief and longing looks, followed by a love scene. And this is meant to carry the rest of the film, this love that never was, this fleeting connection of lust?
My biggest issue with “The Promise” is that it never takes the time to focus on anything. Whether it’s the systemic removal, brutality, and murder of the Armenian population, the love triangle and conflict between the three lead characters, or the attempts to flee the country in a saddening escape, the film never delivers on any of these. Its lack of focus and momentum is detrimental to the pacing, tone, and to the emotional connection with the characters. Does it want to be war movie? A love story? Both? It’s never clear because it flip flops too much and leaves the film feeling sadly empty, lost, and disjointed.
Its lack of focus and momentum is detrimental to the pacing, tone, and to the emotional connection with the characters. Does it want to be war movie? A love story? Both? It's never clear because it flip flops too much and leaves the film feeling sadly empty, lost, and disjointed.