“I made a promise. I can’t go back on that.”
There are many nice words that can use to describe The Promise. It’s lavish, epic, earnest, gentle, tender, compassionate, sympathetic, dignified. By all accounts, it’s an accomplished film, carried by gorgeous cinematography, heartfelt performances, beautiful backdrops and, most importantly, an important, timely story. So why, then, does The Promise consistently fail to grip you? Why is it such an uninvolving, disengaging bore from start-to-finish? Director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) desperately tries to capture the sweeping, old-fashioned grace and gravitas of Doctor Zhivago or Titanic, yet George’s frustratingly turgid, stodgy execution only rarely lets you invest in the grandiose melodrama that’s vividly put on display. It’s a warmly-made movie that weirdly leaves you pretty cold.
Dramatizing the often-undramatized Armenian genocide, The Promise is a world-traveling, decades-spanning love triangle told predominantly through the perspective of humble, dream-driven Armenian immigrant Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac). It’s 1914, before the war begins, and Mikael is an optimistic villager determined to prove himself as a doctor. He’ll travel to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottman Empire, to receive the proper training. But because his family is destitute, he’ll use the dowry of a sweet local girl (a severely underused Angela Sarafyan) to finance his pursuits, in exchange for his hand in marriage. Upon arriving in Constantinople, however, where Mikael moves in with his wealthy uncle, Mikael meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the lovely tutor to his uncle’s children, and it’s love at first sight. But there’s a catch, as there usually always is: Ana is already married to Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), a prominent, well-established Associated Press journalist.
If that weren’t enough to break Mikeal’s heart, the impending first World War surely will. As the Ottman Empire prepares to become allies with Germany and Austria-Hungary, there is a devasting elimination of its large Armenian population. While Mikael remains safely secluded inside Constantinople at first, it’s only a matter a time before he is forced out of the country. From there, Mikael fights for his life and freedom admit unspeakable tragedy, and in his effort to reconnect with his family, Mikael soon reconnects with Ana and Chris, the latter of whom is not unaware of Mikael’s feelings for his wife. It’s a fictional love story admit real-life terrors, a brutal, relevant immigrant story flowed with passion and steamy intimacy. Hey, if James Cameron made it work with a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, surely the tragic death of 1.5 million Armenians can be given the romantic cinema treatment? I’m assuming that’s what the filmmakers asked themselves during the production.
If The Promise sounds cluttered and woefully uneven, you’re right. The combination of brutish real-life atrocities and cheesy fabricated lovey-dovey mush doesn’t quite gel together. The romance is almost charming at times, but hardly investing, and the war-torn devastation is sometimes quite effective, yet it’s typically undercut by the other half of the narrative. The result is a middling, if empathetic, and unfortunately generic snoozer, one that’s not convicting enough to earn your attention and too germane to brush off completely. From its forgettable title to its formulaic approach, there’s not enough in The Promise to sustain your attention. Beyond its heartbreaking subject matter, there’s not enough dramatic pull to keep you invested throughout the poorly-focused narrative.
Its overall mediocrity is made more unfortunate when you know its backstory. The Promise is a longtime passion project for producer Kirk Kerkorian, a self-made Armenian-American billionaire who died in 2015 at 97, before the film was finished. It’s hard to deny that intense passion, but when you’re left distant and detached from its engrossing thematic material, it’s hard not to walk away disappointed. There are many things one can love about The Promise. It does look stunning. The actors do their best to give it everything they’ve got. The production designs are quite grand. But if it leaves you so inexplicably empty, then what good do they do? George doesn’t make half-hearted movies, yet The Promise‘s general sloppiness is inaccessible. The pacing is clawingly slow, and that can be perfectly fine if you’re tightly wrapped into the story, but there’s not enough to these fictional characters and their very real scenarios to earn the epic scope the film’s so desperate to achieve.
The Promise is a nice movie. It’s a nice looking movie too. But it’s not an investing movie, and that’s critical. Despite everything that could rightfully work in its favor, George’s latest melodrama is an impressively ineffective production. In light of recent social and political events, The Promise is exactly the sort of urgent, provoking epic that should be released for modern audiences. And that it doesn’t achieve greatness (or goodness) is half as tragic as the material at hand. There are many good things one could (and should) say about The Promise. I wish I had more nice things to say.