Combining a fictional love story and a real historical event is a time-honored tradition in film. The personal relationship is supposed to make the broader event more accessible and relatable. It doesn't always work, though. Director Terry George's new film, The Promise sets a romantic story against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide during the first world war. While the historical tragedy is absolutely a topic worthy of focus, The Promise fails to live up to its responsibilities.
Mikael Bogosian (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian living in a small village in Turkey in the days before the outbreak of World War I. He works as an apothecary but has dreams of learning real medicine, so he gets himself betrothed to a local girl he doesn't really love with plans to use the dowry to pay his way through medical school in Constantinople. When he arrives there, he moves in with a cousin who has built a successful business in the city and there he meets the tutor employed for the cousin's children, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). Ana is also Armenian and the two bond over their shared heritage even though Ana is already involved with an American reporter named Chris Myers (Christian Bale).
The first act of The Promise is dedicated entirely to the blooming relationship between Mikael and Ana, one Mikael initially rejects because of his promise to marry another back home. We know that ultimately circumstances will force them together. However, things change drastically when Turkey enters the war and begins to systematically "relocate" the ethnic minority Armenians. There's little time for our characters to think about their romance as circumstances take control and force Mikael and Ana in different directions.
The three lead actors do a solid job in their performances, though we've seen them all do better. If there's a silver lining to the love triangle, it's that it's not really a love triangle. Both Mikael and Chris are in love with Ana, to be sure, and while the audience is clearly meant to be on Team Mikael, Chris is not the "bad guy" in this scenario. As a reporter he tries to make the world aware of the genocide which is taking place and a decent amount of the story is dedicated to him and his work, entirely outside of the personal relationship angle. Some of the film's most powerful moments come in the form of entirely silent character interactions where Bale and Le Bon seem to have entire conversations without saying a word to each other. Sadly, these moments are few and far between.
The real emotional punch in The Promise, however, is the travesty of the war. The Armenian people were the victims of a genocide at the hands of Turkey during World War I and seeing that portrayed on film is powerful... when we see it. Mikael is a man who is forced to deal with one horror after another and Oscar Isaac makes the viewer feel that pain. However, whenever the story tries to shift back and deal with the romance, it stumbles. The story itself can't seem to be bothered with making the love story important in the latter stages of the film, which is understandable considering the terrible things the characters are going through, but every time the characters draw focus, the weight of the horrors surrounding them get lost.
If all this led to the characters actually making decisions about their future, that would be one thing, but that never happens. The film moves along in a way that feels incredibly structured to the point of contrivance. While both Mikael and Ana are dealing with divided affections, neither one is ever really forced to deal with this because the plot makes sure that only one of their romantic partners is in the story at any one time. It makes what's supposed to be love feel like convenience.
A dramatic movie about the Armenian genocide is a noble goal in order to make people aware of a horrific event that many still deny ever took place. The Promise deserves credit for doing its part to bring this part of history to life, but it would be so much more powerful if the rest of the film wasn't lifeless.