Mark Reviews Movies

The Promise (2017)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terry George

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Numan Acar, Abel Folk, Angela Sarafyan, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Serbedzija, James Cromwell, Tom Hollander, Jean Reno

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 4/21/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 20, 2017

When it comes to narrative clichés, there are fewer that will undermine the severity of a historical event as much as a love triangle. When that event is the systematic killing of over a million people because of their ethnicity, one especially has to question the rationale of including such a contrived and melodramatic plot as one of the story's central points. The Promise is, indeed, a story about the Armenian Genocide, begun in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, under the same wave of nationalism that put the world at war during the same period. The movie's depictions of the buildup to and the atrocities of that widespread mass murder are succinct but powerful. It's the underlying story that's the problem here.

On the face of it, the romantic entanglement of an Armenian medical student, an American reporter, and an ethnic Armenian woman, who has lived most of her life in Paris, means little within the context of forced migration, death marches, labor camps, and mass executions. Director Terry George and Robin Swicord's screenplay never convinces us why it should, either. Complicating matters, the simplified mindset of that romantic triangle infects some of the movie's portrayal of the genocide. Throughout the movie, there's a mentality of melodrama that undercuts the reality of what's happening.

It's a movie of two minds, and they never meet. Some of that is simply the result of the inherent disassociation between the two stories George and Swicord are telling. Part of it is that the love story feels like an excuse to tell the movie's more important story. It's an easy, familiar, and relatively comfortable way to approach difficult and troubling material. The movie, though, doesn't evolve beyond that easy approach.

The medical student is Mikael (Oscar Isaac), who comes from a small town where he serves as the local apothecary. He has dreams of attending medical school in Constantinople but does not have the financial means. He agrees to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), the daughter of a well-to-do man in town, who gives Mikael a dowry for the engagement. With a bag of gold coins, he makes his way to the capital to pursue his studies.

The woman is Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who has recently returned to Constantinople from France with her boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), the American journalist. There are the awkward pauses and long stares between Mikael and Ana, and Chris shows himself to be trouble around alcohol, causing a scene at a party celebrating a gift of battleships from Germany to the Ottoman government. The empire needs to protect its borders.

From that sentiment, the furor of nationalism rises. Gangs of men with flags and torches march through the streets—looking for anyone who isn't purely Turkish, destroying shops, beating anyone suspected of being part of a minority ethnicity. It is only a matter of time before the localized outbursts of vandalism and violence become systematic—"relocation," as the government calls the process. Chris travels to a small village in the south, only to discover men hanged in the center of town with written warnings tied to their bodies. He spots a long line of women and children being marched through the desert by soldiers. A woman stumbles, and one of the soldiers kills her with a single shot.

George communicates these horrors through clear, concise imagery. It's helped immensely by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarboe's use of natural lighting, which lends a harshness to the environment and near-complete darkness at night. The latter quality is especially haunting during a sequence in which Mikael (who has escaped a labor camp by means of sweating dynamite and a fellow prisoner with nothing for which to live) catches a ride on a passing train. He lies on the top of a car, and as rain starts to fall, he hears cries and yells from within the train. Hands reach out from the rows of cars, trying to catch water, and flashes of lightning sporadically illuminate Mikael's growing realization that he is seeing men, women, and children on their way to their deaths.

These scenes seem to be the movie that George and Swicord want to make—brutal and bleak, with a clear-eyed understanding and communication of the political sentiments that have lead to this mass murder. The story's construction, though, is supported entirely by the tale of Mikael, Ana, and Chris, whose destinies seem wrapped around the notion that one of these men must end up with the woman.

There are complications, of course—betrayals, lies, sacrifices, the belief that one of the men is dead. There's a strange, unfortunate disconnect between the impact of the way George presents the genocide and the heavily coincidental plot of the love triangle. Such coincidences end up forming the entire basis of the movie's third act, as the three are reunited and a decision, apparently, must be made.

To its credit, the screenplay ultimately finds a way around this decision and realigns the focus to the notion that are far greater concerns than the romantic feelings of these three characters. By then, though, it's too late, and The Promise ends up a well-intentioned attempt at revealing reality that is undone by misguided priorities.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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