Perhaps this demonstrates a lack of creative initiative, but one would believe that if a director was to tackle a subject as weighty as the Armenian genocide, they would not choose to use it as a backdrop to a schmaltzy love triangle. If the love triangle is to be included, for whatever reason, perhaps it still could have played a lesser role in the overall plot. Alas, Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) is of the mindset that love trumps all in storytelling and, in the process of it, manages to trivialize a subject matter with remarkable importance to our world’s history. His anger at the tragedy rings genuine, but it’s not enough to build a film on – it’s not even enough to build an essay on. There needs to be structure; if not strictly a three part beginning, middle and end, then at least not what The Promise gave us, which is non-linear fragments of time scotch-taped together. The Promise isn’t so much a film with a cohesive, engaging story but instead bullet points on the drawing board for a film that never moved past its origin.
Lush photography of seaside village? Check. Sweeping aerial shot of woman descending an opulent staircase? Check. Oscar Isaac bathed in the moonlight? Check, check, check. Forgoing any semblance of cinematic intrigue for a by-the-numbers, cheap melodrama, The Promise hardly lives up to its namesake.
Isaac stars as Michael, a young man who is looking to become a doctor set in the time of the Ottoman Empire. While studying, he meets the alluring Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and falls for her, despite being betrothed to a girl from his village. Ana too is in a relationship with Chris (Christian Bale), a truth seeking American journalist. The three dance along their feelings as they try to keep the promises, spoken and not, that they’ve given to their significant others. The greater issue however comes along as the Ottoman Empire joins the Central Powers and widespread violence erupts.
Here we’ve stumbled on a certain case where the greatest crime the film commits is its inability to deliver on the promise of the talent on board, primarily Isaac and Bale, two of the greatest and versatile actors around today. Bale mirrors the dysfunction of the script with a disengaged performance that only hints at what could have been a charismatic and intense turn. Isaac fares better and is give more emotional heft but too is under-served by a script that can’t make up its mind on how we’re supposed to genuinely perceive him. Or, worse, if we’re supposed to truly care about any of them.
Still it’s hard to fathom just why the love triangle ever stood out as an intriguing plot device for a film covering such dire subject matter. George is a wonderful story curator. It’s commendable that a filmmaker actively tries to bring such ugly truths to the surface-better still, a wide, attentive audience. The Armenian Genocide is one of the greatest man-inflicted horror to have ever existed in our shared history and while it’s fare to say that George didn’t need to create a docudrama, especially as he’s trying to make a subject still not acknowledged by the Turkish government into something accessible, it certainly seems reasonable to expect delicacy in the proceedings. The love triangle, not once throughout the film, is ever the shining aspect of the film.
Isaac continues to be one of the most interesting and charismatic actors working today and, undoubtedly, the subject matter is naturally moving and then harrowing, but it needed someone with a greater skill for weaving nuance into storytelling directing the film. Kudos for telling the story, but that can’t be all the film is.