‘The Promise,’ an epic melodrama set during the Armenian genocide, falls frustratingly flat
Charlotte Le Bon, Oscar Isaac, center, and Christian Bale in the film "The Promise." (Jose Haro / Open Road Films)
History is rife with horrific events that somehow manage to reveal true humanity and heroism. Many of these events are underreported, underrepresented and misunderstood, such as the Armenian genocide — the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians and other ethnic and religious minorities by the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1915.
Knowledge of this genocide isn’t universal, and Turkey, the successor nation of the Ottoman Empire, still refuses to acknowledge it. The epic melodrama “The Promise,” based on these events, seeks to remedy popular understanding of the horror. It’s a noble undertaking that only partially succeeds.
Written by Robin Swicord and director Terry George, “The Promise” has all the trappings of a romantic epic — movie stars, love triangles, exotic destinations. It boasts Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and gorgeous European locations, plus experienced talent behind the camera, so it’s confounding then that “The Promise” falls so flat.
The film is a color-by-numbers wartime drama. Isaac plays Mikael, a young medical student from a small Armenian village, pursuing his fortune in Constantinople. There he befriends a young Turk (Marwan Kenzari) and an American reporter (Bale) and falls in love with a worldly and well-traveled Armenian woman, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), though he’s promised to a young woman back home. When the Ottomans enter World War I, the group is torn apart by hatred, racism and violence.
At least, that’s what we can glean from the events depicted onscreen. Throughout its two-hour plus running time, there is nary an explanation of the political machinations behind the persecution of the Armenians. There’s a bit of chit-chat and singing with some German soldiers, a mean Turkish father, and then suddenly everyone’s being executed and shipped off to labor camps while villages burn.
The lack of exposition could be intended to align us with Mikael’s naive perspective. But you’ll definitely leave “The Promise” with far more questions than you started. Perhaps we can never really answer why one group commits genocide against another, but it feels slightly irresponsible to make a film ostensibly shedding light on this atrocity and then not attempt to explain it in the least.
Instead, “The Promise” is mostly concerned with the love triangle between Ana, Mikael and Chris, the reporter. And even the love triangle itself is a disappointment, as these men never seem too concerned that the other is romancing his girl.
The usually charismatic Isaac is saddled with a dud of a character. Mikael spends most of the film buffeted by forces beyond his control and deferring to the desires of others, such as the army and his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo). It’s not until the third act that he starts to make his own decisions. The swaggering heroics are left to Bale as the Hemingway-esque American foreign correspondent.
With seemingly all the right pieces, it’s a disappointment that “The Promise” lacks the energy and originality needed to sustain itself. It might be fresh material, but the approach is decidedly stale.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality
Playing: In general release