It’s complicated to review a movie like The Promise, straddling as it does the separate worlds of fact and fiction. On one hand, there’s the heartbreaking factual story it tells about the war of extermination waged by the Turks against the entire race of Armenians within its borders as the mighty Ottoman-Turk Empire crumbled to an end circa 1915.
But then there’s the fictional story that director Terry George and co-screenwriter Robin Swicord concoct to center the movie while the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide plays out. It’s not a bad story, in an old-timey Hollywood way, a love triangle between a poor Armenian medical student, a sophisticated Armenian girl raised in Paris, and a dashing American photojournalist. But shifting focus away from history to follow the exploits of these fictive characters has the effect of reducing the Armenian tragedy to background material for a less compelling, more conventional romantic drama.
In 1914, Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), is a young apothecary in a small Armenian village with a talent for healing. His father arranges a marriage for Mikael and Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a local girl whose wealthy father dowries her with a sack of gold coins to send Mikael to medical school in Constantinople. There, he’s taken in by his aunt and uncle, a prosperous shopkeeper, and their young daughters.
The girls’ beautiful, Armenian-born tutor, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), was raised in Paris with her ballerina mother. Mikael falls for Ana, but she has a boyfriend: American Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, based in Constantinople. Chris is also an old pal of Mikael’s friend and fellow student, Emre (Marwan Kenzari), whose wealthy Turkish father gave him the option of going to med school or joining the army.
Emre invites the others to a party at his family estate, where hard-drinking Chris mouths off to some German brass who are in the area to persuade the Turks to join them against the Allies as World War I ramps up. Chris soon becomes persona non grata among the Turks when he uncovers and starts reporting the story of how the Turkish government is carrying out a covert campaign to destroy entire Armenian villages within its borders and marching the survivors into the Syrian desert without resources to die.
Filmmaker George (who dramatized another story of violent cultural purging in Hotel Rwanda) makes an admirable attempt to tell this shameful story from many perspectives: poor but culturally rich Armenians facing extermination, a political young Turk dragged into the conflict by his nationalist father, an investigative reporter determined to reveal the truth. Various characters’ experiences include a forced labor camp, a Turkish prison, an orphanage, a refugee march, an ad hoc bastion of guerrilla resistance in the mountains, and a firing squad.
And it’s a story worth telling, particularly since (according to the film’s epilogue) the Turkish government continues to insist to this day that the Armenian Genocide never happened. (One official in the story tries to persuade Chris that the Armenians are merely being “evacuated to a safer region.”) But in another scene, a Turkish official points out to an outraged U.S. ambassador (a cameo by James Cromwell) that insurance premiums secured by Armenians from overseas companies revert to the Turkish state if the policyholders and their heirs and families all die. (A conversation which must be for our benefit, since it’s unlikely a state official would admit this in a diplomatic situation.)
But while all this is going on in the background, the fictional drama up front never earns our investment. Isaac’s ever-earnest Mikael evolves from dutiful son to passionate lover to dismayed witness to horror. Le Bon is poised and lovely, but not taxed to do much else. Bale, stuck with a hopeless thatch of chin fur, plays Chris as a gruff malcontent, with a deep, dissonant Yank accent, and a beady-eyed stare. His calculating demeanor feels off in scenes when Chris’ emotions are supposed to be genuine.
Their fictional drama, imposed on the template of history, distracts from more than enhances the story the filmmakers want to tell.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, and Angela Sarafyan. Written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. Directed by Terry George. An Open Road Films release. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.