Friday, April 21, 2017

'The Promise' Is A Love Story Surrounded By Horror

This review originally appeared on

Taxes were due this week (if this is news to you, I'm sorry), and if you're a California resident paying state income tax, you may have once again been puzzled over a question on the tax form related to "Ottoman Turkish Empire Settlement Payments." Perhaps, like me, you thought, "I wonder what the hell THAT'S all about," but then quickly moved on to the next possible exemption, only to forget about it until next April 15th.

Enter The Promise, a historical romance that sheds light on some 20th Century history that many don't know much about, even if they're reminded of it every April.

Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael, an aspiring doctor from Armenia. Lacking the funds to pay for medical school, he becomes betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan, herself Armenian-American), a girl from his village, knowing that her dowry will pay for his tuition in Constantinople. But once there, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, and her refreshingly era-appropriate teeth), an Armenian dance instructor, who is herself involved with an American reporter (Christian Bale, in a role befitting his intensity).

It's 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, and while the Ottoman Empire is in its last days, Turkey's capital is still a fairly harmonious home to populations of Christian Armenians and Greeks as well as Muslim Turks. Mikael lodges with his rich uncle and cousins in their waterfront home, and evenings are spent in the opulent city, dancing and drinking absinthe. For small-town Mikael, it's heaven.

But not for long. When war breaks out, Mikael does his best to avoid enlistment, but soon he is forced into an even worse fate, as Armenians are singled out for a mass "deportation" that looks a lot like eradication. Like the similarly themed Bitter Harvest, released earlier this year, The Promise provides a look into a historical genocide that, to this day, continues to be denied by the country behind it.

Horrible things happen in The Promise, but we, as an audience, are supposed to care about the film's central love triangle, while around them mothers are being executed in front of their children, and whole villages are forced to walk across the desert to their certain deaths.

Christian Bale's reporter, as one member of the triangle, at least recognizes the bigger story going on around him. He often seems more annoyed by the ill-timing of Mikael and Ana's illicit romance than with its betrayal. As well he should!

It's an understandable trope, pushing a romance into a story that is, at its heart, about horrible things. The goal is to tell a story people will want to watch so the message will get through, like the proverbial spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

And granted, Oscar Isaac brings his reliably smoldering charisma to the role, even if he's not really allowed to use it much. It's like writer/director Terry George (who directed another genocide drama, Hotel Rwanda) knew putting too much emphasis on the romance would be in bad taste, but the result is just tepid distraction. We barely care about who ends up with whom, and I kept waiting for someone to say, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

The film is a little better at the bigger story, not shying away from placing clear blame and calling genocide what it is: This is not a movie that will have many fans in Turkey. Where it falters is near then end, giving some American audiences what they clearly want — judging from the cheers from the crowd I saw the film with — with the appearance of a U.S embassy official (James Cromwell), swooping in and standing up to a Turkish official who has one character's life in his hands. (The scene ends with said official mentioning insurance policies held by Armenians, and a request for the names of American beneficiaries of those policies, a clear shout-out to that bit of California tax code!)

But because the story is never fully comfortable with its two narratives, it doesn't have the impact that was surely intended. It also doesn't delve too deeply into the whys. If you're wondering why the Turks felt the need to wipe out the Armenians, you'll get no answers here. But perhaps that's just as well. If we haven't learned by now that there is never a truly justifiable reason for the mass slaughter of millions of people, we probably never will.

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