Directed By: Terry George
Written By: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Runtime: 2 hrs 13 minutes
It has taken more than ten years for Terry George to return from Hotel Rwanda with another sweeping historical narrative – again about genocide. The Promise is a sobering, beautiful disappointment. The film has a beautiful score and decent cinematography, but is hindered by two competing and uncomplimentary story-lines, flawed casting, and lackluster performances by usually gifted actors.
One thing that The Promise does right is its dogged determination – at least in the beginning – to accurately recreate the Ottoman Empire at its peak. The diversity of the Ottoman Empire is highlighted in the script and on the screen: crowded streets and classrooms alike brim with a rainbow of skin colors and a wide variety of clothing styles. This attention to detail falls to the wayside later on: extras become less and less Armenian with every passing scene, leaving me wondering if the casting department doubts an audience’s ability to see facial features through dirt.
That initial pursuit of realistic cultural immersion was also highlighted in moments like the one when our stars leave a stuffy party full of people in European clothing to hit up the nearby belly dancing club where they drink absinthe, sugar cube ritual and all. The effort to establish the Ottoman Empire as a progressive, inclusive, educated, and wealthy place is palpable.
Unfortunately, The Promise falls short constantly. The focus of the film is what can only be described as a love square: one man is betrothed to a woman but he falls in love with a different woman who is already romantically involved with another man, but she also falls in love with that first man. On its own, this might be a decent movie, but this love square has been placed in the foreground of a genocide. The result is a bad love story (because the backdrop is too dark) and a bad historical drama (because the love story is more carefully developed than the history).
The flashes of the Armenian Genocide that we get are stark: labor camps, cattle trains full of people, violent killings, riots, executions, people on the run and trying to hide. They deserve a telling that does not hide them behind a petty romantic squabble. This is a story that is more than 100 years old and is still illegal to tell in Turkey. 1.5 million people were killed in five years. That story can be told without a love story.
Casting was poor. Oscar Isaac is a great actor, but why a man who is nearly 40 years old is playing a medical student who is betrothed to be married in two years is completely beyond me. He also does not look particularly Armenian. Neither does Charlotte Le Bon, who plays his romantic interest. Angela Sarafyan who, is both a phenomenal actress and an Armenian was cast in a lesser role. I would have liked to see her as the leading actress and a younger, more Armenian man in the place of Isaac.
I get the feeling that this set was not especially actor friendly, which is evident in a lot of lackluster performances. Christian Bale’s character (which should not exist, but that’s a rant about American centrism that we can save for another day) had many a stale outburst. Marwan Kenzari gave a consistently mediocre performance. Charlotte Le Bon seemed out of place in the 20th Century.
It is unfortunate that The Promise fails in its execution because the film explores many prescient themes:
In what ways might people respond to an atrocity? What compromises of our own character might we make when put in a difficult situation? How do we know what side of a story is the true one, both journalistically and personally? What sacrifices might we make for the sake of our families and our friends?
I can only hope that we’ll get the opportunity to explore those questions in a different movie. With any luck, it will be about the Armenian Genocide, because clearly we still haven’t found it in ourselves to tell that story in the way it deserves to be told.
Holly P. is a twenty-something millennial who enjoys shouting at people on the internet, riding her bicycle, and overbooking her schedule. She prefers storytelling that has a point and comedy that isn’t mean. Her favorite movies are Aladdin, the Watchmen (even though the book was way better), and Hot Fuzz. She’s seen every Lord of the Rings movie at least a dozen times. You can follow her @tertiaryhep on twitter or @hollyhollyoxenfreee on Instagram. She’s also on Tinder, but if you find her there she’ll probably ghost on you because wtf is dating in the 21st century.
Have you seen ‘The Promise’? Well, what did you think?