“The Promise” is a picture that acts as both a historical period piece and a romantic drama. Unfortunately, the latter becomes a weakness to the overall film.
The movie sets itself up at the onset of the first World War in the Ottoman Empire and mainly follows three characters, a medical student named Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an American reporter with the Associated Press named Chris (Christian Bale) and his fiance Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). After the three meet, a romantic triangle begins to develop between them causing some expected friction.
However, the real drama of the film comes as the war deepens and the Armenian Genocide begins. This poses immediate danger to Mikael and Ana as they both have Armenian backgrounds and are forced out of their normal lives. Meanwhile, Chris begins to document both the war and the genocide for the AP.
As the lede implied, the portrayal of historical events is compelling yet the romance aspect becomes a major detriment. On the subject of romance, the problem is two-fold. First, the romance itself is executed in a rather clumsy way. The love triangle is largely predictable, it has rushed elements and a poor resolution. Second, the romance brings the picture to a screeching halt every time it goes on screen.
There is already enough drama with the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. So, every time the film switches from the historical elements to its romantic ones, it becomes entirely less engaging.
It’s a shame, too, because in contrast, the historical elements are actually fantastic. The film vividly explores the scope of the Armenian Genocide, from the destruction of homes and businesses to people being forced into labor camps and even executions by military personnel. These moments are harrowing and give audiences an emotional and powerful look into a horror that hasn’t received enough attention in films.
The sequences displaying these historical moments are largely backed up by some solid acting from Isaac and Bale.
It’s not as if these two gave their best performances here, but both provide serviceable work. Bale, for example, is convincing as the strong-willed journalist who wants to make sure the story gets out about the genocide. Isaac, meanwhile, makes the moments of personal agony over the losses from the genocide feel very real.
The filmmakers also do a fine job in recreating the period, with the costume and set design all being on point.
“The Promise” could have been a much better film if it had just taken a straightforward approach at exploring the Armenian Genocide. Unfortunately, the romance aspect does hold this one back quite a bit, as do some minor complaints such as everyone speaking English in a foreign country and Le Bon giving a somewhat average performance. This one comes in at a 3.3 out of 5.