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‘The Promise’ not quite kept

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Historical drama falls short of lofty ambition

The word “important” gets thrown around far too often in the cinematic realm. Serious subject matter doesn’t always equate to cultural importance – even when you’re tackling the big questions, sometimes a movie is just a movie.

It should also be noted that “important” is not the same thing as “excellent” – a film can absolutely be the former without necessarily being the latter.

One such movie that likely deserves that first label – yet just misses reaching the level of the second - is “The Promise,” a historical drama that places a love triangle in the midst of the end days of the Ottoman Empire and offers perhaps the most widely-distributed cinematic recounting of the still-largely ignored horror that was the Armenian Genocide.

In 1915, the Turkish military undertook to systematically eliminate the Armenian minority in their country with forced relocation that turned into widespread execution. All told, 1.5 million Armenians were killed – an act of genocide that the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge as such to this very day.

“The Promise” is one of the first big-budget films to address the tragedy of that time and place.

Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac, “X-Men: Apocalypse”) is an apothecary living in a small village in southern Turkey. He dreams of becoming a doctor, and so agrees to be betrothed to the daughter of one of the town’s wealthiest men. He uses the dowry from that match to help pay for his tuition.

Mikael befriends Emre (Marwan Kenzari, “Ben-Hur”), a fellow medical student and son of a powerful general. While staying with his uncle’s family, Mikael also meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, “Realive”), a young woman who serves as the tutor to Mikael’s nieces. Ana is in a relationship with Chris Myers (Christian Bale, “The Big Short”), an Associated Press reporter determined to report the truth about goings-on in Turkey in this time of turmoil. Despite being betrothed – and despite Ana’s preexisting relationship – Mikael falls for her.

But when Armenians become targets for the increasingly radical regime, none of them are truly safe. Mikael manages to initially avoid mandatory conscription thanks to Emre’s influence, but not even that is enough to save him when he tries to get his arrested uncle out of custody. He is spirited away to a forced labor camp; his friends believe him to be dead.

He escapes and makes his way back to his village, where his parents agree to hide him away – along with his betrothed, who now becomes his wife. Their time together is all too brief, however; Mikael is forced to once again find Ana and Chris and enlist their help to save his family.

But the tragedy is only just beginning for Mikael, as the monstrous nature of the Turkish plan becomes ever more clear. All he can do is hope that he and his friends can do something to save as many people as possible from the horrors that await them.

The story of the Armenian Genocide is one that has been reduced in many ways to a historical footnote, but it warrants far more attention as one of the 20th century’s most horrific acts committed by a state against its people. The fact that this movie even exists is significant. And the historical aspects of the story being told are incredibly impactful. Director Terry George – who also co-wrote the script with Robin Swicord – has captured the look of early 20th century Turkey with a stark beauty and gravitas. It is epic in scale and aware of its responsibility with regards to the story being told.

However, the Mikael-Ana-Chris love triangle that sits in the middle of the narrative never quite registers with the necessary intensity. Isaac, Le Bon and Bale all have considerable talent, yet for whatever reason, the combination doesn’t quite work like it should. On their own, each seems to be giving a suitable performance, but the dynamic is less than the sum of its parts. The lion’s share of the blame should probably go to Bale – he’s clearly not suited to occupying that third wheel space and he doesn’t wear it particularly well – but the other two have their share of iffy moments. There are some great supporting turns as well – Kezari is excellent, while Shohreh Aghdashloo (TV’s “The Expanse”) is wonderful as Mikael’s aunt.

“The Promise” doesn’t quite reach the heights to which it aspires; it’s an uneven film with some notable flaws. That said, it’s still a good and extremely well-intentioned film, one whose message is resonant and well worth being heard despite a few imperfections in the delivery.

[3.5 out of 5]

1 comment

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