If you’re going to make a movie about a particularly dark time in history, you have to tread lightly.
You really only have two paths forward — you can either stick to the facts and shock the conscience (think “Schindler’s List”), or push the horror and bloodshed to the background and pump up the melodrama (think “Doctor Zhivago).
If you try to have it both ways, you’re only asking for trouble. Such is the case with “The Promise,” a movie that mixes a love triangle with genocide and leaves you feeling appropriately icky. However, thanks mostly to the talents of the filmmakers and the cast, they actually almost pull it off.
Set in the Ottoman Empire during WWI right before the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, a young medical student named Mikael (Oscar Isaac) leaves his hometown with the promise to return. He uses the dowry of his betrothed to pay for school while he lives with his uncle in Constantinople. It’s important to note it’s Constantinople, not Istanbul. Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks. (Sorry, it had to be done.)
While in Constantinople, Mikael has his eyes opened to the world and befriends all manner of interesting people, but those he becomes closest to — to a problematic degree — are idealistic American reporter Chris (Christian Bale) and his beautiful, sophisticated Armenian girlfriend Ana (Charlotte Le Bon).
Naturally, Mikael and Ana hit it off, but both have to keep their feelings hidden because of Mikael’s betrothal and Ana’s devotion to Chris.
Just as the romance grows more complex, war breaks out, giving the Ottomans the cover to systematically harass and murder the Armenian population within their borders. Writer/director Terry George pulls no punches as we are thrown headlong into all of the horrors and atrocities of the Armenian Genocide.
Mikael is separated from his friends and family and is tormented to an almost ridiculous degree as he survives labor camps and mass executions before joining an outmatched, armed insurrection.
By the time Mikael crosses paths with Ana and Chris again, it’s kind of hard to care about this doomed romance after being subjected to the highest levels of human cruelty. But don’t think they aren’t going to make you try.
George knows his way around a historical drama with movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “In the Name of the Father.” But with those movies, he was dealing with real people and actual events. Here, with a fictional story woven through a tragically glossed-over chapter of history, the story and the focus wander off course and lessens the impact of both sides of the screenplay.
Isaac and Bale are dependably great and work hard to elevate the movie above the romantic aspects of the film that become borderline tacky.
Even Le Bon deserves credit for giving some depth to her two-dimensional character and more than holding her own opposite Isaac and Bale.
In the end, this is a subject deserving of a clearer focus and greater attention to detail. “The Promise” tries its best, but unfortunately misses the mark.
“The Promise” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, including war atrocities, violence, and disturbing images, and some sexuality.