The penultimate weekend of April 2017 was packed with new releases, and the one that created the most buzz for the wrong reasons was “The Promise”, a $100 million historical drama following a love triangle in the middle of the Armenian Genocide that some are already labeling one of the year’s biggest box office flops. Intrigued by the story and the time period that the film is based in I gave it a watch and, while the film makes a noble effort to drive home the horror’s of the Armenian Genocide during World War I, it loses its way as it bends the line between historical and romantic drama in a way that fails to drive home to true impact the genocide had on the Armenian people and the world.
As I said “The Promise” is set during the Armenian Genocide, the systematic elimination of the Armenian people by the Turks during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I. The film follows three different characters caught up in the ensuing conflict, Armenian medical student Mikael played by Oscar Isaac, American Associated Press journalist Chris played by Christian Bale, and Paris-raised Armenian Ana played by Charlotte Le Bon. Over the course of the film two distinct conflicts arise, the genocide itself and the complicated romantic relationships between Ana and the two male leads. As Chris becomes a defining journalistic figure spreading the news of the genocide to the Untied States, Mikael becomes a personal victim of the genocide when his people become targets and he himself finds himself in a prison camp at one point. Meanwhile Ana is caught in between the two as the connecting factor between all three character arks that eventually leads to the history-inspired climactic rescue at the films end.
As you can probably tell from the synopsis above, “The Promise” is a rather bloated film. At just over two hours the movie focuses heavily on both the genocide conflict and the romantic subplot, sometimes as separate stories and sometimes as one intertwining issue, and at times it truly feels like the filmmakers weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go with this whole thing. Both stories feel unrelated and very disconnected and there were points when watching this film that I literally wished it would just move on already from one issue to focus more on the other.
“The Promise” focuses on a very dark time in history, but the writers seemingly tried to make it even darker by creating fake characters that find themselves torn apart by both the Turks and each other as the two men compete for Ana’s affection. It seems to have been an attempt to drive more emotion into an already heavy story, but instead it created a confusing and muddled mess of plotlines that are, in truth, watered down when it’s all said and done with no conflict really have an opportunity to fully flourish or provide any real stakes, especially considering the simple and rushed resolution to the love triangle that I won’t spoil here but was, to say the least, very sudden and unsatisfying.
I have to give the cast credit. They do what they can with what they have. We see great moments of emotional strife and heartbreak in all three leads, from Mikael living with the loses he suffers from the genocide, to Ana having to deal with the reality of her two romantic lovers, and finally Chris trying to be a voice for a people he feels would be forgotten if his journalistic contributions weren’t part of the war. There’s one scene where Chris is sending a headline to America and shouts to a group of people that the Armenian’s are being murdered and noone seems to care while Ava and Mikael are just starting to get a grip on what’s going on and panicking to make sure people are safe. We needed more of this from the story and less romantic subplot. This is what this movie should have been all about, and it’s in those moments we see truly effective acting because when it comes to the romantic subplot these actors are wooden and uninteresting. There’s no chemistry between them until the chaos of the genocide takes its toll and only then do we see what we paid to see, tears, fear, and terror in the face of a truly horrific crime against an entire people.
Basically all that emotion and desperation is lost when the love story takes hold. Ana, who seems like a strong woman in her own right, seems to be nothing more than a tool to bring these two men from different walks of life together and bind together subplots to show different angles of the conflict, but even with that goal in mind it does so in messy and uninteresting fashion. Basically what I’m trying to say is we didn’t need a love story in this movie and the film is so much worse off for it. Regardless of how it helps drive character motivation, the tragedy alone should have been enough to motivate these people.
We have an American news reporter, and Armenian medical student, and a female love interest either of the male leads could have been devoted to Ava without the other being involved and just watching them try to survive and having more visual focus on the horror that was the Armenian Genocide would have been more than enough. “Shindler’s List” showed how you can use simplicity to tell a powerful and dark historical story, but “The Promise” fails to truly grab hold and tear at your heart strings the way it deserves to because it doesn’t spend as much time on the little details. I’m sure the love triangle was installed in the story with the best of intentions in mind, but instead of adding to an already emotionally powerful time in history, it takes away from just how big of an impact this look into one of the most overlooked crimes against humanity could have been. This is a movie about innocent people, and entire race of innocent people, getting killed off for no real reason in a world where they were probably nonexistent in the eyes of many around the globe. This story should have been about opening those eyes that are still shut. That’s what we needed to see. Not a cliché and unnecessary lover’s quarrel in the middle of one of history’s worst crimes against humanity.
In closing, “The Promise” has an ironic name. It promises a lot, but gives us so little and it’s frustrating to say the least. It has great intentions and focuses on subject people really should know more about, a horrid sin on humanity that is unique in a world of cinema where World War II seems to have become the cliché of choice. While it has a noble goal of striving for awareness of the Armenian Genocide, it fails to really present just how horrid the genocide was and trades in more powerful imagery and darker themes for a romantic sub plot that feels out of place, underdeveloped, and insignificant to a story meant to show the horrors faced by an entire people, not a select three.
It’s boring, it’s messy, and, in my opinion, “The Promise” is an opportunity missed by a mile to finally shed some light on a much-maligned and often tragically ignored crime against humanity that deserves to be explored for the sake of making sure such a tragedy is never repeated. We’ve had many films do justice for the holocaust so there’s no excuse for failing to tackle such a tragedy properly. Surely the truth and horrors of the Armenian Genocide will hopefully someday be explored in a much more worthy and effective film that this one, this time without so much convoluted romance and a little more sincerity and true human impact which “The Promise” sorely lacks.