The Promise (2016)

  • Time: 134 min
  • Genre: Drama | History
  • Director: Terry George
  • Cast: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Shohreh Aghdashloo


Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, The Promise follows a love triangle between Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris – a renowned American journalist based in Paris.

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  • “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler once remarked. Indeed, almost a century after the start of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children. Based on intentions alone, Terry George’s The Promise should be applauded for being one of the very few films shedding light on the tragedy. However, its attempt to position the genocide as the backdrop for a romantic love triangle is painfully bungled.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach – look no further than Doctor Zhivago for a prime example of successfully marrying soap opera to history – but the trick is to ensure that the audience is emotionally invested in the characters’ travails, romantic and otherwise (Sean Penn’s much-derided The Last Face, in which Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem fell in love during the Sudanese civil war, was a master class in failing to execute this). One would think that this would be simple enough to do with a star trio like Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale, but the screenplay by George and Robin Swicord seems determined to leech them of any interest.

    Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian, a young apothecary living in the Armenian village of Sirun who finds himself bethrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) so that he can use the dowry to travel to Constantinople so he can study to become a doctor. Though he’ll be away for three years, he promises Maral that he will return so that they can get married. In Constantinople, he’s welcomed and housed by his wealthy uncle Mesrob (Igal Naor) and his family. There he meets the beautiful Ana (Le Bon), an Armenian raised in Paris who serves as tutor to Mesrob’s daughters. Naturally, he’s entranced with her though he refrains from acting upon his affections since he is engaged and she is involved with Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American reporter for the Associated Press.

    The trio are soon swept up in the turmoil of World War I. Anti-Armenian violence breaks out on the streets, resulting in Mikael and Ana taking shelter in a hotel for the night. Whatever resolve either of them had disappears as they surrender to their feelings. The next day, Mikael is sent to a prison camp after he tries to save his uncle from being imprisoned. Ana at one point believes him dead. Chris is hellbent on exposing the atrocities, barking out his American reporter status at every Turk that gets in his way. At no point does any of their personal trials and tribulations overwhelm. Part of the issue lies in the tepid chemistry between not only Isaac and Le Bon but Bale and Le Bon. The romantic rivalry between Mikael and Chris is also lacking in believability. It’s as if the actors are merely going through the motions instead of genuinely feeling and conveying the love, guilt, conflict, and desperation.

    It’s difficult not to be moved by what the Armenians went through even in a film as problematic as The Promise. Scenes of the Armenians’ death march across the desert or the pile of bodies lying in the woods are horrific and are powerful because George presents them without manipulation. Unfortunately, George also insists on including cringe-worthy scenes such as Tom Hollander’s prisoner Garin remembering how he used to be “a clown in a circus. I made children laugh.” There’s no reason to yank at the heartstrings when all one needs to do is bear witness to be outraged at the atrocities.

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