Funny, insightful and biting, this drama is a likely Best Picture nominee that’s not to be missed....
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.
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.