Sanctimonious and ham-fisted, the latest historical drama from “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George reduces the Armenian genocide to a backdrop for a tepid romance.
Is it worth $10? No
“The Promise” tells the right story from the wrong point of view. It purports to depict atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman government in what would become the Republic of Turkey, beginning in 1915, resulting in the deportation and systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. It also wants to sweep up viewers in a romance featuring A-listers Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale as two men in love with the same woman. It bends itself backward to have it both ways, a creative decision that's misguided at best, embarrassingly misbegotten at worst. You know what they say about the road to hell.
Director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), who's never met a humanitarian crisis he wasn't compelled to turn into a social problem film, starts off one year before, in the village of Siroun, where Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians have coexisted in harmony for centuries. His protagonist, Mikael Bhogosian (Isaac), kindhearted and ambitious, is the local apothecary.
“We treated everyone alike,” Isaac's idealistic go-getter says in cringe-inducing, heavily accented voiceover narration.
Bhogie, you see, wants to go to med school to help bring Siroun into the 20th century, so he agrees to be betrothed to simple (and wealthy) Maral (“Westworld's” Angela Sarafyan, totally wasted here). The dowry he receives in exchange for promising to marry her will pay for his studies. Mikael gives his word to Maral's dad.
And off he goes to Constantinople to pursue his dreams. His moneyed uncle shows him a postcard-ready, CGI-rendered waterfront view, a contrast to the rest of the film's hi-def images, which may be serviceable enough during daytime scenes, but make the movie look like a motion-smoothed telenovela during most of the nighttime sequences.
Mikaelcito's uncle also introduces him to Ana Khesarian (“The Walk's” Charlotte Le Bon), the daughter of a famed violinist and an artist in her own right. Her creative streak manifests itself in sketches the film is only interested in as a way to pique Mikael's interest. Plain-Jane Maral starts fading from memory mighty fast, as Mikael keeps running into, then actively pursuing, Ana.
Here's the thing about Ana, though. She's kind of taken. Enter Chris Myers (Bale), a booze-swilling Associated Press newshound who can smell the brewing conflict from miles away. Wait, what conflict are we talking about? Ah, yes, the impending mass murder of more than a million innocent people. It's a good thing “The Promise” has got Myers, a composite of AP reporters who risked their lives to prevent the genocide from going unnoticed by the rest of the world. Since, you know, that's what the movie's supposed to be about.
But George, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Robin Swicord (1994's “Little Women,” also starring Bale), gives viewers only the most cursory, bare-bones glance at the political intrigue that fueled the holy war that led to the killings. (One scene featuring James Cromwell as an American ambassador butting heads with a Turkish official provides a taste of the movie “The Promise” should have been.) The filmmakers would rather show Myers having a lovers' spat with Ana than doing some actual reporting. “We have something very special,” Bale tells his conflicted girlfriend, and it's a line we have to take on faith, because there's certainly no evidence of said affection on screen.
George and Swicord are eventually obligated to portray Myers as a witness to history, and when he stumbles upon, say, the death marches that led women, children and the elderly to their doom, “The Promise” finally registers a pulse. Admittedly, the Indiana Jones shenanigans we see Bale perform come across as creative embellishments, but at least they steer the film, however briefly, away from the wishy-washy love story at its core.
And let's face it, it's not much of a love story. Isaac, saddled with a distracting, unintentionally funny accent, and Le Bon might both be charismatic screen presences individually, but they generate zero heat together. Their alleged romantic connection remains just out of the filmmakers' reach.
The Ottomans eventually come for Mikael and the rest of the Armenian “infidels,” but we always feel at arm's length from the atrocities, even when they directly affect the characters. “The Promise” sacrifices political context in favor of chronicling a handful of families' plight, but it fails even at that basic level. Ubiquitous character actors like Tom Hollander, Jean Reno and Shohreh Aghdashloo pop up in minor roles, and both wisely hit their marks before getting out while the getting's good.
The film eventually devolves into a series of life-and-death struggles where the casualties, rather than coming across as random and unpredictable, play out as if they had been negotiated with the cast's publicists in order of name recognition. Instead of conveying the horror the Armenians faced during this period, the deaths all too conveniently shift the film's focus back to the central trio, and the mens' tug of war for Ana's affections. When it's not trying to shoehorn an unconvincing romance down our throats, “The Promise” indulges in some of George's most self-indulgent finger wagging. He's shocked, SHOCKED, that so many Armenians lost their lives. Now here's a scene of Mikael and Ana trying to suppress their untamed passion.
Haven't George and Swicord learned anything from “Casablanca”? “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine tells Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa Lund during their bittersweet farewell. “The Promise,” to its detriment, tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.
Images courtesy of Open Road Films.