Time for a history lesson, folks. During the final years of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, the presence of the Armenian citizens was seen as undesirable to the forthcoming Republic of Turkey, which would lead to the deportation and eventual extermination of roughly 1.5 Armenians from 1915 until 1923. This is a fact that the nation of Turkey still denies ever took place, even to this day (this is at least according to the title cards at the end of this film). There’s quite a bit more to it than my brief summation, but for brevity’s sake and a point of reference, I’ve just covered the basics. Anyhow, this all serves merely as window dressing to hang a belated Titanic-inspired love triangle plot on in The Promise, a well-meaning and competently made, but ultimately misguided piece of historical fiction that seeks to wrap the awful history being depicted into a more accessible, easily digestible package; for both better and worse.
For starters, one cannot fault The Promise in the area of its casting. While there’s a revolving door of supporting characters constantly coming and going herein, the central three figureheads in the story remain the same throughout. In the lead role is Oscar Isaac as an Armenian man caught up in all the chaos (props to the film for actually having an Armenian protagonist to experience all the horrors with) and the very skilled up-and-comer adds another solid role to his expanding repertoire. Also present is the reliably charismatic Christian Bale as an American journalist covering the crisis while also contributing to the safe relocation of the refugees caught up in everything, because topical! And then there’s newcomer Charlotte Le Bon as the woman that both Isaac and Bale are equally striving for the affections of, amidst all the crisis. Of the three, she’s the one your average viewer has probably seen the least amount of work from (myself included), so it’s only natural that her performance would stand out the most from the leads, though the fact that she capably holds her own against two fairly well known co-stars is an impressive feat in and of itself.
For a film that covers such an expansive period of time (at least seven years, from what I was able to understand), the pacing of The Promise feels just a bit off for the most part. There’s a really complicated real life story happening within the film’s central narrative, but it’s all told in extremely broad strokes and Hollywood-like cliches, just to make room for not one, but two(!) love triangles that we keep coming back to. Add to that all the constant exposition dumps, as well as the occasional over-reliance on narration, used primarily to gloss over important events and character details. Elements like this can’t help but suggest the possibility that the film was probably meant to originally be closer to three hours in length, rather than the two hours and ten minutes it’s at now, probably due to a heavy editing process. This would help explain why it feels so choppy and rushed in certain areas, despite crossing the two hour mark in its final form.
As I mentioned earlier, much of The Promise comes across as a Titanic wannabe in regards of its blending of tragic romance and historical tragedy, and oh man does it ever come across as forced and wholly inappropriate at times. While I fully understand the purpose of a historical fiction is to provide a more easily accessible character-driven prism to view the events from, this film seems to take it a bit too far in some areas, and often gets lost in the minutia of the dueling romances amidst the literal holocaust that’s taking place right outside of the frame. Like, who the hell cares about Oscar Isaac’s blue balls and broken heart when his own people are being brutally massacred by the thousands? Granted, it’s not too distracting from the overall narrative, and the utter gruesomeness of the Armenian genocide is rarely watered down or not dealt with properly. But the constant shifting from one tone to the other gets tiresome at points, and runs the risk of diluting the overall impact of the story.
At the end of the day, The Promise is a perfectly watchable and mostly harmless piece of historical romance fluff. At best, it serves as a solid acting showcase for its three central performers, and might make certain viewers become more aware of an attempted extermination that took place over a full century ago (I myself cannot claim total ignorance regarding the events taking place in the film, but that may not be true for everybody). But you just can’t help feeling like there was a lot of wasted potential here to either strengthen the fictional dramatic narrative of the film, or place more emphasis on the atrocities that occurred at the time. Instead, we have a final product that clumsily tries to balance the two, but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. A fine attempt, but it doesn’t quite get to either where it wanted or needed to go.