Review: The Promise (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: In the final days of the Ottoman Empire, an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) falls in-love with a French-educated Armenian woman (Charlotte Le Bon) who’s the mistress of a cynical American journalist (Christian Bale). Already facing hardship due to his betrothal to another woman, the two soon find themselves caught-up in the horrifying Armenian genocide and on the run for their lives.
REVIEW: Believe it or not, in the hundred years since the Armenian Genocide, which involved the systematic extermination of 1.5 million people, THE PROMISE is the first Hollywood movie to be made on the subject. In fact, to this day the Turkish government denies the genocide ever happened. As such, this is a movie that should have been made long ago about a subject that’s so important one can forgive director Terry George’s decision to make such a deliberately old-fashioned mainstream film.
Bankrolled by Hollywood heavyweights, Mike Medavoy and Raph Winter, with an executive producer credit for the late Kirk Kerkorian of all people, and a cast-full of stars, THE PROMISE has clearly been made with the intention of reaching the broadest audience possible. If using soapy romance is the way George and co-writer Robin Swicord have decided to put it across, so be it.
Lavishly shot, George has taken a different tact here than he did with the more focused and tightly-coiled HOTEL RWANDA. Telling a broad historical tale that unfolds over several months, George takes his time introducing us to Isaac’s Armenian apothecary, who agrees to an arranged marriage in-order to secure the funds he needs to study medicine in Constantinople. A clear-eyed, heroic type, he has every intention of returning to his kindly fiancee (hence the title), even if he can’t help but fall in-love with the dazzling Charlotte Le Bon, whose French accent (Le Bon is from Quebec) is explained by her having been educated at the Sorbonne.
For much of the running time, romance is emphasized over the genocide, although George does make the time for a few harrowing episodes. One of the most effective is a sequence where Isaac meets a former clown-turned-slave laborer (Tom Hollander in a cameo) who still has the bullet lodged in his head from when the Turkish soldiers tried to execute him. Like in HOTEL RWANDA, the carnage is de-emphasized, with them clearly hoping for a PG-13 rating and a distribution deal that will get this out to the broadest audience possible. The downside is that the movie lacks the power it might have had with a more bold approach.
Nevertheless, they’re aided tremendously by the appealing leads. Isaac has been doing peerless work lately and it’s clear he put a lot of himself into the part, with his acting always convincing, right down to his accent. Le Bon is also very effective, with her part here building nicely on her break-out in THE WALK. She’s able to command attention without being devoured by her co-stars, which says something.
Of them all, the biggest draw is probably Christian Bale, playing a supporting role here as a Hemingway-esque writer who goes from being a dissolute drunk to a hero once coming face-to-face with the evil of the genocide. He’s separated from the leads early-on, with his episodes standing more on their own, and Bale, wearing a beard and carrying extra weight, gives a sturdy, straight-forward performance without any real scenery chewing.
While THE PROMISE is old-fashioned and melodramatic, one can’t really argue with George’s safe approach, as with it taking one-hundred years to finally do a film on the subject, perhaps the clear, easy-route to getting the point across was indeed the right one. It’s a flawed, sometimes cheesy film but the subject it deals with is tremendously important, with the cost to the Armenian people well-conveyed. Given the solid performances by legitimate Hollywood stars and the scope, THE PROMISE accomplishes what it set out to do. This is the rare case when the subject matter and importance of the project trumps any shortcomings in its quality and its hard not to get caught-up in the history and wonder why people don’t talk about the event more. Hopefully it won’t take another hundred years to get another movie made about it.