It’s hard to imagine where a movie like The Promise went wrong. On paper, it’s easy to see why the project would lure in such big names as Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. It’s a sweeping love story in a time of turmoil often unexplored by films. It even boasts the same director as Hotel Rwanda. The piece practically has “Oscars” stamped across the front in red ink. However, due to a complete lack of tonal control, the film falls apart.
While using the dowry paid to him by his future father-in-law to attend medical school, Mikal Boghosian falls in love with Ana Khesarian. Soon, The Ottoman empire begins forcibly moving or executing Armenians out of their homes and villages. Mikal escapes a work camp and finds his way back to his family. But they must escape the country to ensure their safety.
Since the film is rooted in historical fact, there is an inherent sense of drama. Unfortunately, writers Terry George and Robin Swicord are content to let the drama of The Armenian Genocide be passive, while they bog the script down with a TV movie-level love triangle. It’s a shame, since everyone involved is incredibly talented. And to that point, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale deliver excellent performances. But they’re let down by the script and the pacing of the film at every turn.
From the outset, it’s clear that something is off in the structure of the film. It begins with Mikal’s narration. And in that narration, he refers to characters and events we have not seen or been introduced to. The film continues in this fashion as Ana is introduced, disappears, and reappears on the arm of Bale’s Chris Myers. From what I gleaned, she had been away with him for months, but the audience is never explicitly told.
The lack of detail seeps into the scenes depicting the genocide as well. One assumes that in order to secure a budget, the filmmakers were forced into a PG-13 rating. Unfortunately, that means any time the film can explore the heinous acts in detail, it is forced to cut away. With subject matter as heavy as The Armenian Genocide, they should have been allowed the freedom to put the horrors on full display. To this day, the atrocities committed by The Ottoman Empire are not officially recognized by the Turkish government. It’s an event that warrants a Schindler’s List level film rather than the airport paperback romance at its core.
Beyond the structural and rating-bound problems with The Promise, the film’s pacing is beyond off-kilter. Certain events are completely glossed over while other, less important facets of the story are covered in painstaking detail. It’s a maddening, restless experience. It reaches an infuriating fever pitch in the film’s climax when a major character’s death happened so fast it is easy to miss it until the other characters brought it up in their dialogue. The film also features a tacked on epilogue complete with atrocious age makeup.
While The Promise isn’t an all out disaster, it never becomes all that interesting. The central figures of the film bring an easy charm to their characters and their interactions feel natural but the poor pacing and undercooked nature of the screenplay make for a frustrating watch. Also, watching The Armenian Genocide be a backdrop to a saccharine love story feels misguided on quite a few levels. The film should have been a shoe-in this awards season, but will soon be forgotten by the masses once summer blockbuster season kicks in.
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