Film Review: The Promise

A young man leaves his village to study medicine in Constantinople and becomes embroiled in events leading to the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in this competent but unremarkable historical epic.
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Growing up in the small mountain town of Sirhoun, Mikael Pogosian (Oscar Isaac) is following a family tradition when he learns to be a traditional healer. But he aspires to become a modern doctor, and uses the dowry that comes with his betrothal to local girl Maral (Angela Sarafyan) to finance his studies in Constantinople.

Though he's living under the watchful eye of his uncle, prosperous businessman Mesrob (Igal Naor), cosmopolitan Constantinople is quite a shock to the sheltered Mikael. It's teeming with people of many nationalities and religions, along with sophisticated, outspoken young women like Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a private tutor to his uncle's young daughters and the girlfriend of American journalist Christopher Myers (Christian Bale). Mikael's growing social circle also includes medical-school classmate Emre (the engaging Dutch-Tunisian actor Marwan Kenzari), son of a powerful Turkish politician who expects him to follow family tradition and enter either politics or the military. Neither prospect appeals to the easygoing Emre, who prefers parties and absinthe bars to forging strategic friendships and listening to hate-filled anti-Armenian rhetoric.

The Promise is first and foremost a message-driven film, in which the forces of history inevitably warp and reshape the lives of its young protagonists, making them choose sides in a powder-keg world where a wrong step or word could condemn them, their families or even their entire villages. Directed and co-written (with Robin Swicord) by U.K. filmmaker Terry George—whose credits include the politically charged In the Name of the Father and Hotel RwandaThe Promise functions as a history lesson in fiction form, and that's not meant inherently as a criticism. Dramatic films ranging from Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Dr. Zhivago (1965) and Reds (1981) have always functioned as a powerful way to put human faces on dry facts, and a century after the start of events that eventually claimed 1.5 million lives, the Armenian genocide is still not only overshadowed by the Holocaust but resolutely denied by the Turkish government.

Despite its multinational, all-star cast—which ranges from James Cromwell as American ambassador Henry Morgenthau to Jean Reno as French battleship Admiral Fournet and smoky-voiced Iranian star Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mikael's mother—The Promise won't be a hit on the order of Schindler's List. That's in part because it lacks Steven Spielberg's gilded pop-culture cachet and partly because it isn't flawlessly buffed and polished... you could argue that too much gloss can't help but defang stories rooted in bigotry and knee-jerk violence, but it puts eyeballs on the screen and if you have a message to share, eyeballs count. It's also because The Promise lacks the broad-based star power—think Brad Pitt/Jennifer Lawrence-level marquee names—needed to pull mainstream American theatrical audiences into movies about other people's tragedies. But it's also because The Promise isn't a great film: It's thoroughly competent and on the side of the angels, but it never transcends its agenda.

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