The Armenian Genocide—one of the many complex chapters of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians–has seemingly been forgotten, or at least untouched, by Hollywood. “The Promise” sought to change this pattern through a war-torn love triangle storyline, but missed the mark on capturing the gravity and delirium of the atrocity.
The fictional love story ties Paris-educated tutor Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) with Armenian medical student Mikael (Oscar Isaac) and Associated Press war reporter Chris (Christian Bale), and witnesses them from the glamour of pre-war Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Ottoman work camps and round-ups of Armenian villages.
Mikael, unwilling to settle for his innocent small-town fiancée (Angela Sarafyan), leaves her for the big city and medical school, promising to return soon (this isn’t the namesake promise, however). Falling for the first city girl he sees, also Armenian, he faces his first hardship in discovering she is in a long-term relationship with Chris.
But, as this is 1914, the world is seeing worse than Mikael’s pining heart. The flirting, lusting, and city life continues on until Constantinople’s Armenian intellectuals start disappearing. The film, as the war, then devolves into an expository battle of prisoners, executions, and desperation. However, the film's laser focus on the love triangle only becomes more and more unsympathetic and meaningless.
The film is a sincere attempt at humanizing and personalizing events that are too complex and devastating to portray as a whole by focusing on the individual lives affected rather than the 1.5 million persons affected, but gets lost in its attempts to do both. Solid acting, beautiful scenery, and compelling action almost gives the film a shot at being successful, but not quite.
The problem does not seem to be wholly the director: Terry George also directed “Hotel Rwanda,” with much more depth and conviction. Nor is it money, as the film reportedly cost almost $100 million to produce, including support from Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. As Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone put it, “it’s distressing to see a great subject go wrong in the right hands.”
“The Promise” may inspire a viewer to read up a bit more on one of the world’s first modern genocides, but the film itself will not leave you with an accurate enough understanding of this chapter of history.