This garish bore makes a mockery of a subject in desperate need of wider validation.
There’s finding love in a hopeless place, and then there’s the premise of The Promise, which sets a love triangle against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide. It is a movie seemingly erected around the notion that Pearl Harbor wasn’t tasteless enough, a ludicrous attempt to bring the spotlight of Hollywood onto one of the horrors of the 20th century. It cannot even succeed on its own absurd terms, so inconsistently blending staid romantic melodrama and mawkishly demonstrative historical outrage that it merely highlights the worst elements of each.
Director Terry George has enough decency not to pull a bait and switch with the movie. Though things start in idyllic fashion with small-town apothecarist Mikael (Oscar Isaac) heading to Constantinople to study medicine and making friends, we also see the lingering glances cast by local Turks at the young man and his fellow Armenians. But these small moments of discord are quickly subsumed by the overall sense of whimsy of Mikael’s studies, and above all the people of Constantinople—Christian or Muslim, Turkish or Armenian—ultimately share a culture and a tendency to speak in exposition. Take the introduction of Mikael’s love interest, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), first spotted teaching his young cousins how to dance as people speak of her returning from Paris. Shortly thereafter, Ana’s boyfriend, Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), arrives, and he hilariously emanates Bale’s inherent antagonistic attitude, not so much at any specific person but at the sheer irritation of it all. Chris is an Associated Press reporter keen on covering the buildup to the Ottoman entry into the Great War, and there’s something amusing about the famously press-shy Bale capturing something of an honest reporter in his general sense of crabby malaise.
As the triangle forms around these players, Turkish nationalism inflames, and just as Mikael decides to make a move, the film’s body count begins to rise. This establishes the general tenor of the remainder of the movie, which oscillates gruesomely between depictions of outright atrocity and budding romance. Thus as Mikael accompanies Ana to a vocal performance, holding her hand tenderly, Chris rides out to an Armenian village reduced to embers, with the men strung up to rot and the women and children being marched into the desert to die. And when Mikael is pressed into a labor camp and escapes only through sheer blind luck, the narrative concerns less his survival or the risks every Armenian in his life faces than the possibility of his reunion with Ana.
That a criminally, heinous underrepresented (and still officially unacknowledged) ethnic cleansing would be exploited as justification for constantly separating and reuniting its core trio does not need to be singled out as offensive. It’s downright ghoulish to see Ana and Mikael navigate their feelings around the trauma of seeing Mikael’s village and family slaughtered, or of Chris thrown into prison as a foreign agent for reporting the genocide that the Empire seeks to carry out without notice. Certainly this is not the first film to filter a romance through the outbreak of war, but that extra step of extermination lends a sourness to the entire enterprise. It does not help that the whole movie operates along an inert sense of drama punctuated only by the disgust of its witnessed horrors; there is no sense of genuine chemistry between any of the leads, and it’s easier to be repulsed by the grotesque contrivances when the relationships comprise nothing but those contrivances. Even the film’s title alludes to a forced subplot, that of Mikael’s arranged betrothal to a lovely but unwanted woman from his village, the poor girl existing as nothing but a rarely seen plot device to add another wrinkle to this burdensome tale.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that somewhere within The Promise is an interesting movie. It is not a small matter that its two male heroes are, respectively, a doctor so committing to healing that he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger against an army bent on his people’s eradication, as well as a member of the press so dedicated to the truth and journalistic integrity that he would face state execution in some hidden hellhole than give up a source to save his hide. Those are compelling characters, and perhaps even the romance might have worked if a certain old-school sensibility added a florid sense of passion to those scenes that would have been horribly, affectingly rent apart by the surrounding reality of destruction. Instead, this tedious, garish bore, which goes so far as to close out in serious tone with figures and quotes set to photos of real Armenians, makes a mockery of a subject in desperate need of wider validation.