Romance and Genocide Don’t Mix in ‘The Promise’
One can argue about director Terry George's decision to focus on love in this milieu, but there’s no denying his execution fails on both a thematic and a narrative level.
The Promise isn’t the first film to personalize the unfathomable horror of war using a conventional love story, but it’s certainly one of the clumsiest. Despite Turkey’s continued refusal to admit its wrongdoing, the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915 stands as one of the most disgraceful chapters in recorded history. It’s also one of the least examined chapters, which makes director Terry George’s task of crafting a respectful, yet emotionally gripping film especially challenging.
George is no stranger to tackling genocidal atrocities. His 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, was a visceral punch that unflinchingly captured the courageous efforts of one hotelier to circumvent evil. It’s surprising, then, that he stakes the success of The Promise on an unconvincing love triangle that inevitably weakens, and some would say cheapens, the underlying human drama. One can argue about the offensiveness of deploying a love story in this milieu, but there’s no denying that the execution fails on both a thematic and a narrative level.
The titular promise is made by Mikael (Oscar Isaac), the apothecary of a tiny Armenian village in Southern Turkey. Mikael dreams of enrolling at the Imperial Medical School in Constantinople and becoming a respected doctor. For a dowry of 400 gold pieces, he promises to return to his village and marry a local girl named Maral (Angela Sarafyan) upon the completion of his medical training.
Mikael quickly learns that the allure of Constantinople is far more valuable than 400 gold pieces. There, he meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian girl raised in Paris who sweeps him away with her worldly charm and artistic grace. Things are complicated by the presence of Ana’s American boyfriend, Chris (Christian Bale), a handsome reporter for the Associated Press who thinks nothing of dashing into danger to grab a few quick pictures. When the bloodshed starts and the Turks begin rounding up the local Armenians, Chris charges to the frontlines to show the world what’s happening, while Mikael tries to avoid detainment and further his love affair with Ana.
This lays the foundation for Mikael’s eventual character arc; a self-centered young man who relies upon the kindnesses of others to evade persecution must learn to be self-reliant and courageous. Again, nothing about this is particularly offensive, but his initial passivity makes Mikael difficult to embrace emotionally.
Worse still, it sets up a narrative conundrum for the love story anchoring George’s script (co-written with Robin Swicord). If it’s sketchy that Mikael immediately abandons his vow to Maral in order to canoodle with Ana, it’s outright appalling that Ana would consider cheating on Chris. To put it bluntly, Chris is the daring American savior who overshadows the morally ambiguous “Armenian” characters.
Unlike the usual characterization we get of the driven journalist -- constantly abandoning his loved ones for ‘the big story’ -- Chris loves Ana unconditionally. Even when it’s apparent that Ana and Mikael have fallen in love, his compassion precludes him from blaming her for the indiscretion. He even agrees to accompany Ana in her quest to find Mikael, at which time he will almost certainly lose her. Outrageous goatee aside, Chris is the most dynamic character in The Promise and this indisputable fact renders the love triangle thoroughly implausible and uninvolving.
Thematically, too, the love triangle is tragically flawed. Specifically, George fails to adequately enmesh the love story with the surrounding carnage. The emotional core of Ana and Mikael’s forbidden love never becomes a metaphor for the bloodshed (a love affair between an Armenian and a Turk would accomplish this objective, for instance). The stories simply exist on two separate levels, neither informing nor enhancing one another.
Nowhere is this division more evident than the consummation of Ana and Mikael’s lurking passion. As they make love in the comfort of their bed, we see the flames from burning buildings flickering outside the window. What was undoubtedly meant to be an artistic flourish about the danger lurking on their doorstep, only highlights the reality that these two storylines are independent entities.
Occasionally, the two storylines manage to converge and, predictably, it's a distracting mess. Even with the danger and excitement of refugees fleeing for their lives into the mountains, the plot must grind to a halt to provide the latest update on Ana and Mikael’s affair. It makes for an unevenly paced film that, while intermittently thrilling, eventually becomes an endurance test.
When The Promise succeeds, and those moments are infuriatingly rare, it’s always a result of George focusing on Mikael’s personal journey from idealist to survivor. His harrowing stint as a laborer on a Turkish railroad crew is not only an emotional pivot point for Mikael but elucidates the wartime quandary that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. The final verdict, of course, is pronounced in history books by the victors.
George gets an admittedly splendid performance from Isaac in the lead role. Though you don’t feel a compelling emotional attachment to Mikael during the film’s first half, Isaac wills you to keep caring. He reaches painful depths, as when he stumbles upon a massacre outside of his village. Watching him sift through the bodies for signs of life, only to be thwarted again and again, is heart-wrenching. It’s masterful, wordless acting that connects you with the senseless tragedy far deeper than any manufactured love affair.
Given the current state of the world, with refugees fleeing hotspots like Syria on a daily basis, it’s imperative that filmmakers get stories depicting genocidal atrocities ‘right’. The Promise means well and perhaps it will open the eyes of a few uninformed audience members, but its lackluster love story will likely put off more people than it inspires.