The Promise is a treatise on the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks(Ottoman Empire) following the lives of two Armenians and their counterparts. While the movie provides poetic cinematic context for the beauty of Armenia, the culture and its resilient people, the main point of the movie is somewhat distracted by the love triangle issues of the main characters.
First of all, this is not particularly my kinda movie; I’m not one for the trials and tribulations of love in line with Jane Austin or “The real housewives of Hollywood” style. However, I will say that a lot about this movie was very well done. The sprawling cinematic shots of landscapes, cities and villages were breathtakingly beautiful and it seemed as if everything was well thought out logistically. For example, the scene where Michael (Oscar Isaac) goes to find his uncle at the open market only to have a competing trader badmouth his uncle in an attempt to get Michael’s business. There are also several scenes where you can hear the Islamic call to prayer as conversations are taking place. And, there’s the scene where Ana and Michael are in a beautiful church while the priests says prayers. All-in-all, a very authentic view and feel. Coming from a country myself where there’s the constant dichotomy of Islam and Christianity those scenes definitely gave me nostalgia for years past.
The thespian work of the cast is top notch. Oscar Isaac plays Michael; a wide eyed village boy that sets off for medical school in Constantinople. Oscar is quite possibly the most underrated actor of this current generation of actors. I’ve seen him in a number of roles at this point but his work here was just gut wrenchingly good. One of the pinnacle scenes shows him describing the massacre of his family at the hands of the Turks and using it as a reason for the Armenians to fight back; Very powerful work. Charlotte Le Bon (Ana) was also very compelling as the governess-esque character for Michael’s (Oscar Isaac) cousins. She’s engaging, enigmatic and the chemistry between her and Oscar’s characters was believable and well done. Christian Bale (Chris Myers) as the cocksure American journalist also gave a strong performance and provided a foil-like presence to Oscar’s character.
While all performances of the aforementioned and remaining cast were strong, it ultimately and unfortunately did a disservice to the movie. The main point the movie is trying to drive home is the horrific nature of the genocide that occurred during that time period. It seems the director really wanted a love story with some big name actors to kind of give the movie some uplifting moments and not have the movie be too much like a documentary. While I understand this sentiment, the three-way love story turned the very important point of Armenian genocide into some background setting for another episode of “Day of our Lives”, “General Hospital”, “Party of five”, “Dawson’s Creek”, ***insert ridiculous soap opera here***. Its as if they couldn’t decide if they wanted the movie to be about this soap opera stuff or the gruesome aspects of the war. For example, there’s an attempt at levity in a scene where an Armenian subjugated to slave brutality does some miming for a group of other Armenian slaves and then reveals that he used to be a “clown” and made children laugh. A scene or two later, he blows himself, his Turkish foreman and a bunch of other Armenians to smithereens because he could no longer cope. I understand the attempt at juxtaposition and irony of a benign clown driven to extreme violence but it just comes off as preposterous. The Aremenian did not have to be a clown to evoke empathy or irony in the situation. It was a bridge too far. And, unfortunately, a lot of the movie is like that: A lot of ridiculous soap opera pomp and ostentation at the cost of the profoundly gruesome predicament of the characters. A gruesome predicament of which actually happened for a lot of Armenians.
If the powers that be really wanted a love story that gave added power and gravitas to the very real Armenian genocide, all they needed to do was focus on Michael and Ana and place way less emphasis Chris Myers. Chris Myers only provided a distraction for movie goers that fancy themselves the swashbuckling hero that rides in and says “I’m an American that saves the day!”. The story of Michael and Ana, two Armenians and their families, fighting for normalcy in the grim chaos brought on by the Turks and Germans on its own was very compelling.
The love triangle, soap opera issues are unfortunate because barring those things, this could have been one of the best movies for the year. Alas, squandered opportunities.