Setting a cinematic love story against the backdrop of a major historical event is always a dicey proposition. There’s a handful of times it’s been done well, but more often than not the historical event gets pushed to the backseat or that the relationship angle becomes a silly distraction in what is otherwise a powerful and necessary film.
The latter is unfortunately the case with The Promise, from Hotel Rwanda director Terry George. Written by George, alongside Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), it ends up being a lot closer to Michael Bay’s 2001 misguided dreck Pearl Harbor than it does to, say, Doctor Zhivago or Casablanca.
The first major feature film to spotlight the 1915 Armenian Genocide, The Promise is undoubtedly important and has indeed received admiration and support from Hollywood big-shots like George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio for openly presenting such an overlooked part of world history, but it ultimately gets too hung up in an inconsequential love triangle that its main purpose is diluted.
Oscar Isaac stars as Michael Boghosian, an aspiring medical student in a small Armenian town. On the eve of World War I he gets engaged to a local girl and uses the dowry to fund his studies. Once in Constantinople, though, he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is seeing Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). Ana and Michael, naturally, fall in love just as Turkey enters the war and begins systematically exterminating Armenians.
To be sure, there is no shortage of attention paid to the genocide that is going on around (and to) Michael and Ana. Director George, along with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Finest Hours), never hesitates to show the awful truth (which Turkey continues to deny even to this day). The moments of historical drama are compelling and often horrifying; it’s only when muddled together with the love triangle that the impact lessens. It’s almost as if you’re watching a TV documentary only to have your dog sit on the remote and inadvertently change the station to a soap opera.
Isaac, for his part, continues to affirm his standing as one of the more bright and talented actors at work today. He is given the monumental task of anchoring the film, and he pulls it off with a deep and moving performance. And Bale, though playing a largely one-note character, also succeeds. He even makes Myers moderately sympathetic, despite the script’s essentially placing him as the antagonist. Le Bon is less effective, however, and often seems out of place. And it doesn’t help matters that she is saddled with the task of playing the object of affection in a storyline that will cause more eye-rolls than swoons.
The Promise winds up as a moderate success, if only because it reminds moviegoers of a dark point in history that hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. It has its heart in the right place, despite focusing far too much on affairs of the heart.