It should have been epic, this story of the brutal Armenian Genocide. It could have been monumental but instead, director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) ruins an important war drama by diluting it with an unsatisfying romance in The Promise. The movie is essentially a love story with war as a backdrop, much the same way Titanic was a courtship rudely interrupted by disaster. The Promise even rips off Leo DiCaprios drowning scene.
The Promise starts out promisingly, as Mikael (a heavily-accented Oscar Isaac), a young Armenian apothecary living in a tiny half-Turkish-half Armenian village in Southern Turkey, aspires to be a doctor. But he cant afford medical school in Constantinople (now Istanbul), so he agrees to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan) in exchange for her generous dowry. Cash in hand, he treks on donkey, then steamer, for the big city to attend med school. He leaves behind his betrothed, but makes the promise to his new father-in-law that he will always love and take care of Maral. While in Constantinople, Mikael stays with his wealthy uncle, develops a taste for the finer things and falls for Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a sophisticated dance teacher. But shes already in a relationship with American journalist Chris (Oscar-winner Christian Bale), on assignment for the Associated Press. A love-triangle ensues as political unrest mounts. Its the eve of World War I and Turkey is aligning itself with Germany, creating a dangerous time for Armenians. They are rounded up, jailed, killed, and others, like Mikael, sent away to a labor camp.
On merit, the story is shocking and richly cinematic. Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks leading up to and during World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. To this day, Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide. But George, who co-wrote the script with Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), is not interested in just telling that moving tale. Instead, they try humanizing it with silly, conflicting romantic scenarios. Their situation is so cliche its laughable.
Eventually, both Chris and Ana figure Mikael is dead. The script will repeatedly reunite and separate the three main characters, with each ensuing reunion feeling forced. Ana, who devotes herself to helping Armenian orphans, looks up from bathing a child in a remote missionary and sees Mikael. What are the chances? George and Swicord will use any contrivance handy. And that is so detrimental to the story. It picks up only when the strong supporting cast steps to the fore. As Mikaels fellow med student and new Turkish BFF, Marwan Kenzari (Wolf) proves the movies most endearing character. Only briefly seen, he is the lone facsimile to a real human being. Shohreh Aghdashloo is equally heartbreaking as Mikaels loving and protective mother. James Cromwell plays U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, and has small but important moments with Bales journalist and a Turkish soldier. The impact of the peripheral characters is heightened because the three lethargic leads are stuck in parts built for soap opera.
Like every other journalist ever depicted in a movie, Chris gets in trouble for not revealing a source. But that doesnt stop him and the other two sides of this listless triangle from converging in the mountains of Southern Turkey, where in the siege of Musa Dagh, thousands of Armenians mount an heroic resistance against the Turks. Props to George and Swicord for capturing the ghastliness of genocide, especially with whats currently going on in Syria and Sudan. The filmmakers put the viewers in the midst of chaos and despair, but at 132 minutes, The Promise is really just a movie in a long, drawn-out war with itself.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Angela Sarafyan.
(PG-13 for war atrocities, violence, and disturbing images.)