Hot Take: Is it the story of a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide or was it the story of Armenian Genocide set against the backdrop of a love triangle? Technically, there’s a fourth person involved… does that make it a love rectangle?
There’s so much promise in The Promise. Not only does it boast an impressive cast featuring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in the main roles, the largely untold story of the Armenian Genocide is one that seems ripe for the cinema. It’s also written and directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Terry George who was nominated for Best Screenplay for In the Name of the Father (1993) and Hotel Rwanda (2004). With all of that going for it, The Promise still can’t get out of its own way, focusing on a rather dull love triangle invented for dramatic purposes yet its placement in the film actually strips away most of the drama of the 2 hour and 14 minute film.
The story focuses on Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian who wants nothing more than to study medicine in Constantinople. Mikael agrees to be wed to the daughter of an affluent neighbor in exchange for a dowry of 400 gold coins which allows him the financial resources to attend the Imperial Medical Academy. Once he arrives in Constantinople, Mikael seeks out his wealthy uncle and it is there where he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a beautiful Armenian from Paris who is there to teach his uncle’s children how to dance. Obviously smitten with Ana, Mikael quickly learns that she has a boyfriend, an American journalist named Chris Myers (Christian Bale). As Mikael gets closer to Ana, tensions mount around them toward Armenians by the Turkish people at the outbreak of World War I. It becomes no longer safe in Constantinople for Armenians just as Ana and Mikael stop ignoring their attraction to each other. Before Ana can tell her boyfriend, Mikael is sent off to a prison labor camp after trying to help his uncle who was also captured by Turkish officials.
As the story progresses, the film ineffectively bounces back and forth between the Armenians fight for survival in the face of genocide and the fictional love triangle between Mikael, Ana and Chris which lacks any real drama as the trio continually has their tale interrupted by the harsh reality of the Armenian Genocide. With the stakes as high as they are for the Armenian people, it’s hard to give any real credence to the three involved in what feels like a rather trivial matter of the heart. Mikael is separated from Ana and Chris for a decent part of the film as he is imprisoned in a labor camp and eventually escapes only to return to his home where he marries the woman he is betrothed to in exchange for protection from the Turkish military.
The true tale again becomes intertwined with the fictional tale as Mikael finds out his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) has told Ana and Chris that he is dead and he feels he must tell them (Ana especially) that he is not. He also wants to find them to secure safe passage for his family as part of their plan to help Armenian orphans escape from a Turkish mission to safety away from the Turkish persecution. Once Mikael happens upon Ana, their love affair appears like it might reignite until she finds out Mikael is married and his wife is with child.
Unfortunately, the film cannot stay in focus when it comes to its plot. Is the audience supposed to be caught up in the harrowing tale of the plight of the Armenians on the brink of becoming extinct at the hands of the Turkish people or should they focus their energy on the love triangle between Mikael, Ana and Chris? The Armenian Genocide feels like it should be the main focus of the film but plays out like an afterthought. The love triangle has fiery potential but never really reaches anything more than a simmer as the higher stakes of the Armenian people at risk overshadows the subplot and trivializes any weight you may want to give it.
The Promise does shed some light on an atrocity toward the Armenian people that the Turkish government continues to deny to this day. It fails to do so in any cohesive manner, though, as the lengthy, drawn out fictional romance fails to hit its mark. Even Bale and Isaac appear to fall short of their proven capabilities as actors and their presence fails to elevate the film above the mess created by its maundering and rather uninteresting love affair. The Promise is a missed opportunity with its only saving grace being the greater good the film does by giving attention to the overlooked barbarism of the Turks toward the Armenians. Too bad it couldn’t have been better as it’s unlikely many will see this film because it fails to live up to the promise this topic and cast give its audience and instead delivers a long-winded, boring result.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Visually Impressive Cityscapes and Landscapes
Throughout the film, the shots of Constantinople throw the spotlight on a gorgeous city. When the film moves to the desert, equally impressive backdrops of the harsh landscape keep the film visually interesting, at least.
- The Promise of the First Act
The biggest disappointment of The Promise is its inability to capitalize on a strong first act. The first third of the film shows a lot of potential before the story becomes dull and disjointed.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- What the Bale?
I’ve literally gushed over previous Christian Bale before on MHT. See my Hot Take on The Big Short if you don’t believe me. I would argue that Bale’s performance in The Promise is the weakest of his career although, to be fair, I have not seen his entire catalog and Exodus: Gods and Kings jumps out as a missed opportunity to witness something brutal from Bale. That being said, he feels completely out of place in this film and delivers a rare unconvincing performance.
- A Confused Chronicle
The fatal flaw of The Promise is its supreme lack of identity. Is it a romance? Is it a historical account? Is it both? The emotional stakes never feel all that high and despite countless nightmarish scenarios unfolding, the lack of emotional investment the audience is likely to put into the main characters is obvious.