The Promise

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 21, 2017

Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale star in 'The Promise'
Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale star in 'The Promise'  

Don't worry: Terry George's new film "The Promise" isn't a remake of the slushy 1979 Gilbert Cates film that romance writer Danielle Steele adapted into a novel. It is a romance -- a triangle, in fact, between one evidently highly desirable woman and two very different suitors -- but it's also a harrowing historical drama that depicts the horrors and atrocities of the Armenian Genocide, a blood-thirsty campaign that wiped out a million and a half Armenians in the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915.

The Turkish government has never owned up to this holocaust; even now, as the film notes, Turkey denies it ever happened. Moreover, there are reports that even before it opened, the film was subjected to an onslaught of negative online reviews intended to drive down its overall rating.

It's hard to regret it when haters waste their time and energy, funneling their malice down a black hole instead of directing their efforts toward targets they might actually harm. However, it's hard not to observe that, in this case, they're unlikely to make much of a difference. "The Promise" may not be as cheesily ridiculous as its 1979 namesake, but it's still a stilted and mostly ineffectual love story.

Oscar Isaac plays Mikael Boghosian, the son of a prosperous merchant in a bucolic little town situated in the Turkish countryside. Mikael is a talented apothecary, but he has greater ambitions; he wishes to become a physician, aiming to bring "modern medicine" to his corner of the world. The only way he can afford the tuition of the medical school in Constantinople is to agree to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan) and collect a dowry of 400 gold coins.

Once he's in Constantinople, though, and living with his wealthy uncle, Mikael finds himself attracted to Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who has recently returned from an extended stay in Paris. Ana is part of a larger group of new friends, which include fellow medical student Emre (Marwan Kenzari) -- a young playboy who's only in school to appease his militaristic, bigoted father -- and Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a world-renowned AP reporter increasingly determined to expose the atrocities the Turks are perpetrating against the Armenians. Even as things heat up between Mikael and Ana, they get sticky -- partly because Mikael, an honorable man, feels duty bound to fulfill his promise to Maral, but also because Ana and Chris are an item.

Complicated as they might be, the romantic entanglements don't gel so much as gum things up. Chris' drinking alienates Ana, and his jealousy burns almost -- but only almost -- as hot as his professional drive. Meantime, Maral sits out the first third or so of the movie, and once she reappears it's only to serve as a dutiful, baby-making wife. Mikael's imprisonment, slave labor, escape, and daring journey back to her is riddled with improbable and melodramatic moments, and while this is all handy as a means to illustrate various aspects of the Ottoman Empire's holocaust against the Armenians, it also feels contrived for the purpose of packing as much horror and outrage into the film as its meager narrative framework can handle. (If what we see of the Ottoman Empire's methods for mass extermination seem like a rough draft for the subsequent horrors of the Nazi regime, that's no accident: The film strongly suggests that Germany is egging the Turks on, though for its own sinister purposes.)

Where "The Promise" does succeed is in raising hackles. The abuses it depicts may be serial in nature, but they do eventually ratchet up to a climactic showdown between a group of defiant Armenians and a Turkish military intent on eradicating them -- a showdown that actually did occur, and into which the French staged a historic intervention.

Still, it's an open question as to how well the movie would succeed even there, if current events didn't make such chapters from the last hundred years or so come into worryingly sharp focus. The French of yesterday may have been gallant enough to save refugees, but now, with Marie Le Pen poised to possibly take the reigns of power in France (and follow Britain's Eurozone-busting lead), who knows? As for Turkey, given the way that nation has just taken three giant leaps toward dictatorship -- with America's own president applauding from the sidelines -- you can't help feeling that the most villainous parts of world history are about to repeat themselves. Worse, this time there may be no heroes.

Given all that, you might find this film worth seeing, if only to believe in (and take solace from) Oscar Isaac's confounded, but ultimately motivated, defender of liberty.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.