REVIEW BY OISÍN WALSH
The Promise is a film which focuses on the Ottoman Empire’s execution of the Armenian Genocide the early 20th century. The film follows an Armenian medical student, Mikael (Oscar Isaac) a young man with high prospects and a bright future who is forced to witness the genocide which devastates his people. The Promise allows us the opportunity to view this historical tragedy through the lens of an Armenian character, but we are cheated by a narrative which pulls focus from the weighty subject matter on to a love story that motivates the actions of the protagonist.
From the outset, the film recognises the importance of origins. Mikael’s family has a legacy and a substantial standing in the Ottoman Empire, it is what allows him to pursue his education in Constantinople. Even Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the Armenian born, Paris educated woman who becomes involved with Mikael, returns to her homeland and declares herself a “proud Armenian”. This is key to the setup of the narrative as the horror of the genocide is fully felt when one sees how much the Armenian people have to lose. This feature of the film is supported mainly by the excellent production design which shows off both the style of the period and also the wealth that Mikael’s family enjoy.
The Promise features strong performances throughout, Isaac plays a likable protgonist allowing us to feel great sympathy for the struggles he faces in his fight for survival. Unsurprisingly, Christian Bale is pitch perfect in his performance as an American reporter who exercises his informed opinion despite the risk of persecution. He is necessary for the narrative as it recognises the importance of the media in documenting events as they happen; without media outlets present, the Armenian Genocide would be undocumented and forgotten. Alongside Isaac and Bale is Le Bon, whose high spirited attitude holds fast against the horror of the events taking place as she bravely attempts to maintain the morale of the many victims of the tragedy. Beyond this, the film’s strong supporting cast succeed despite brief screen-time; they are the performances which often feature in the film’s most engaging scenes.
One aspect of the film which weakens its entire treatment and delivery of such a devastating event in history, is the presence of a love triangle between the three named leads. This is an aspect which does not cripple the film in its entirety but it will certainly be the part which will have you checking your watch in the cinema. It’s what fills in the time between the film’s strongest moments and makes you feel like you’re wasting yours. Time spent on the romantic relationships of these three characters would have been better spent on fleshing out the peripheral characters in the film, most of whom have scenes that are engaging but far too brief. It is likely that the film could have packed a greater impact if more emphasis had been placed on the poignant moments where we see the brutality of this historical event, instead of suffering the boredom of a love story set against the backdrop of a historical event which could be placed against one of many.
I believe those who see this film will learn a lot about the Armenian Genocide which they may not have known prior to seeing it, or if like me, they knew virtually nothing. However, as a film it suffers from extended periods of weakness due to its superfluous love triangle narrative, although it is saved by its moments of greatness which make the film worth seeing. The Promise delivers an important and memorable history lesson, if not a significant cinematic experience.