When we last saw Irish born writer-director Terry George of the African genocide drama Hotel Rwanda, he tried his hand at mobster comedy with the Brendan Fraser starring Whole Lotta Sale. After a clandestine release and meager critical reception, George returns to the genocide drama some twelve years later with the Armenian set historical drama The Promise. Not to be confused with Chen Kaige’s utterly ridiculous 2005 film of the same name, the expensive yet independently financed drama depicting the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire lasting from 1915 to 1922 aims to be a hard and heavy historical epic ala David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago.
Films depicting the Armenian genocide have always faced an uphill battle and that’s no exception here, with controversy cropping up regarding a holocaust denial effort to downvote the film on IMDb with over 4,000 fraudulent ratings. Further still, the pricy indie reportedly underwent reshoots and after a September premiere last year was pushed back all the way to April 2017. Despite the solid leading performance by Oscar Isaac and sound production values taking on a still sore subject that’s still denied it ever even took place by the Turkish government, The Promise while undeniably a deliberate tearjerker falls victim to the oldest historical drama cliché in the book: the love triangle.
Depicting scenic beauty amid carnage and horror, Oscar Isaac plays Armenian medical student Mikael who becomes embroiled in a romantic triangle between an Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and her American journalist boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale). Whereas Hotel Rwanda boiled down to a central protagonist, The Promise allows for Oscar Isaac to create a fully-fledged character fighting for survival in one of the actor’s more physically daunting performances whereas Bale and Le Bon get left to the wayside. Loosely adapted from Franz Werfel’s novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh about an Armenian rebelling against the Turkish government, it’s a story that needed to be told if only the tried and tired triangular romance trope didn’t keep getting in the way.
I’m genuinely torn about this one. It’s a topic worthy of a documentary or even an austere historical epic rather than a melodramatic hook we’ve seen done to death. There are scenes of mass murder and death that are undeniably moving if not completely horrifying, pushing the film’s PG-13 rating as far as it can go, and then the digital camera with that smeary Michael Mann frame rate pans back to a jealous and ineffectual Bale looking on from a distance at the kisses shared by Isaac and Le Bon’s secret romance. The film is potent enough with the thunderstorm of human slaughter and frankly did not need to channel the scene from Titanic where Billy Zane chases Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet down the sinking ship with a gun.
Yes the film is affecting given the subject matter, how could it not be? The intentions behind it are good and it is a story that left much of the audience at the screening I attended silent as the end credits rolled. Most will leave the theater feeling pummeled as the traumatic atrocities pile up without relent for the 134-minute running time. Romantic historical epics like Lean’s Zhivago, Warren Beatty’s Reds and even Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate rarely happen anymore so it is refreshing to see filmmakers try to bring it back. And yet upon further reflection, I grew annoyed that an important subject that must be told was in service to a half-baked romance we’ve seen done to death. Somewhere in George’s latest is a good movie if only it didn’t keep pushing that love story I could care less about in my face every chance it could.
- Andrew Kotwicki