It takes a special kind of movie to snuff the charisma of actors as screen-grabbing as Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. But damn if The Promise, a World War I romantic triangle set in the Ottoman Empire and exposing Turkey’s brutal Armenian genocide, doesn’t do exactly that. How did a film so loaded with good intentions and talent on both sides of the camera go so badly off the rails?
Isaac (Ex-Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) stars as poor, ambitious Armenian apothecary employee Mikael who, in 1914, leaves behind his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and shy, wealthy rural fiancée Maral (Angela Sarafyan) to study medicine in Constantinople, where he will live with his father’s wealthy cousin. Mikael takes his dowry and promises to return home to his family and wife-to-be once he is now a doctor. Soon, though, his attentions are diverted by Ana, an artsy Armenian (lovely Charlotte Le Bon from The Walk) raised and schooled in France whose boyfriend Chris (Bale) is a hard-boiled, hard-drinking American newspaper reporter who puts himself at the epicenter of a world gone mad as war erupts. Chris dedicates himself to exposing the Turks unleashing on Armenians death marches and horrific genocidal massacres.
Meanwhile, Mikael and Ana fall in love, thrown together by constant street violence and the specter of death all around them. As the conflicts spiral insanely, so does the eternal triangle of Isaac, Le Bon and Bale.
Overstuffed and underdeveloped, the movie so often pulls apart and jams together its characters—one minute a rich friend’s bribes keep Mikael out of the draft; the next, he is forced into slave labor on the railroad, and so on—they become cinematic saltwater taffy. Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) directed and cowrote (with Robin Swicord) The Promise and it’s clear they’re going for something powerful, moving and vital. Certainly, the deliberate “ethnic cleansing” of one and a half million Armenians, denied by Turkey to this day, marks a horrifying and shameful period begging to be exposed to the world. But while there’s no doubting the noble intentions of the moviemakers, we wish they had poured their convictions into a more persuasive film.
It’s when they struggle to elevate this thing into a sweeping, emotionally gripping romantic melodrama set against an historical backdrop—something on the order of Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago and The English Patient—that The Promise loses its focus and drive and descends into soap opera. Nothing wrong with soap, of course, but this is the kind of film that lives or dies depending on chemistry among the leads. The Isaac-Le Bon match is a nonstarter, although in the labor-camp scenes and elsewhere Isaac is terrifically moving and committed. Bale’s turbulence gets wasted as again and again he blusters and blows thunder and becomes almost comical. We’re so far removed from caring, we’re left wondering what he’s on about. Similarly, strong actors like Jean Reno, James Cromwell and Tom Hollander keep popping up in the action but good as they may be, they get caught in the muddle.
Although opulently shot by Javier Aguirresarobe (Thor: Ragnarok) and playing out against a syrupy score by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), the movie’s pace is alternately rushed and pokey. When the laughs come—just wait for Hollander’s operatic cameo as a concentration camp circus clown who says, “I used to make the children laugh”—they’re completely unintentional.
Just by its very existence and its groundbreaking exposure of historic atrocities and injustices, this is a movie that makes many promises. It’s a shame that the thing is so damned earnest, scattered and plodding that it hasn’t come together in a way that fulfills those promises.