The Promise: Big-Screen Spectacle Without Compelling Characters

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the promiseEditor’s Note: The Promise opens in wide theatrical release today, April 21, 2017.

The “promise” in The Promise, an unengaging, dull Doctor Zhivago meets Titanic retread starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon as the three sides of an uninteresting romantic triangle set against the Armenian genocide perpetuated by the collapsing Ottoman Empire during the First World War, isn’t a promise in the over-the-top, hyper-romantic “I’ll find you” vein of a Last of the Mohicans, but a more prosaic, duty-bound promise Isaac’s character, Mikael Boghosian, an apothecary turned medical student, makes to his Armenian family and his fiancée: In exchange for his fiancée’s dowry, he’ll return to his village post-medical school, marry her, and start his own medical practice. Of course, Boghosian’s starry-eye plans for his future are completely for naught. The First World War and the Ottoman Empire’s decision to eradicate the Armenian people send Boghosian on an entirely different path altogether: That of an old-school melodrama that ultimately undermines the subject writer-director Terry George (Reservation Road, Hotel Rwanda) and his co-screenwriter, Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Practical Magic, Matilda), hoped to reintroduce into the public consciousness.

The three central characters, however, never emerge with the complexities and contradictions, the subtleties and nuances, necessary to make them root-worthy in more than just a superficial sense.

the promiseWhen we meet Boghosian, he’s filled – like any young, ambitious man – with dreams of bettering his life and the lives of his immediate family and village. Those dreams involve medical school in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), the capital and center of the Ottoman Empire, the bridge between Europe and Asia. His father’s cousin, Mesrob (Igal Naor), a successful merchant, takes Boghosian in, acting as a guide and mentor, especially when Mesrob can’t help but notice Boghosian’s growing affection for Ana Khesarian (Le Bon), a family friend and dance instructor. Armenian by birth, but raised in Paris, Ana represents an irresistible cosmopolitan impulse: She’s cultured, well traveled, and of course, beautiful. Their romance faces multiple obstacles beyond the impending war, however: Boghosian’s waifish fiancée, Maral (Angela Sarafyan), and Ana’s boyfriend, Chris Myers (Bale), a hard-drinking American photojournalist. Myers represents a long-ago Hemingway-inspired ideal, the journalist as a thrill-hunting adventurer and story-chaser, but his gradual exposure to the Armenian genocide turns him into a truth-seeker as well.

For all of its often frustrating, irritating tangents and digressions, the inevitable result of scattering the central trio in different directions for long, meandering stretches of time, The Promise serves up its fair share of big-screen scale, scope, and spectacle.

The three central characters, however, never emerge with the complexities and contradictions, the subtleties and nuances, necessary to make them root-worthy in more than just a superficial sense. They’re each noble, blemish-free characters, thrust into the chaos of war and genocide, but they’re props, stand-ins for the filmmakers ideas rather than the fully rounded, flawed characters they should have been. As The Promise moves from one atrocity to another – each one carefully shot to avoid offending the sensibilities of sensitive filmgoers – it loses, not gains, momentum. Boghosian eventually ends up in a work camp, destined for hard labor and a premature death, but an encounter with a onetime clown, Garin (Tom Hollander), eventually offers him the possibility of escape. Ana ends up in a Christian mission, tending to orphans, while Myers does the reporter-in-danger thing, risking his life to document the Ottoman Empire’s mistreatment of its Armenian population.

For all of its often frustrating, irritating tangents and digressions, the inevitable result of scattering the central trio in different directions for long, meandering stretches of time, The Promise serves up its fair share of big-screen scale, scope, and spectacle, albeit spectacle occasionally hampered by over obvious CGI, but it also fails to deliver compelling characters or a meaningful, memorable story that doesn’t feel like its been borrowed wholesale from Doctor Zhivago or – in The Promise’s most egregious act of borrowing or if we’re being less generous, theft – Titanic. Isaac and Bale, professionals both, deliver reasonably persuasive performances as Noble Hero No. 1 and Noble Hero No. 2, but Le Bon often seems lost in the role, likely due to a combination of being miscast, an underwritten character, and English as a second language.

6.5 OKAY

For all of its often frustrating, irritating tangents and digressions, The Promise still serves up its fair share of big-screen scale, scope, and spectacle, albeit spectacle occasionally hampered by over obvious CGI. Unfortunately, it fails in delivering compelling characters or a meaningful, memorable story.

  • 6.5
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.