On Tuesday I went to the cinema with a friend to see The Promise. Directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), it is billed as the story of “a love triangle between Mikael Boghosian, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana Khesarian, and Chris Myers, a renowned American journalist.” In fact, the love story is a structural technique used to tie the film together amidst the real story: the events of the Armenian Genocide during that last days of the Ottoman Empire. It starts in early 1914, months before WWI, and ends in late 1916 or early 1917 before the United States enters the war. Overall my reaction to The Promise was positive, though it is not a flawless film.
There are many good reasons to see The Promise. First and foremost is the acting. Oscar Isaac (Boghosian), Charlotte Le Bon (Khesarian), and Christian Bale (Myers) give superb, nuanced performances. They were perfectly cast and surpassed my expectations. The supporting actors who deserve special kudos are Marwan Kenzari (as Emre Ogan, the Turkish friend of both Myers and Boghosian), Angela Sarafyan (as Maral, Boghosian’s innocent, trusting wife), and Shohreh Aghdashloo (as Boghosian’s mother, Marta).
I also give high marks for the costumes, make-up, cinematography, and especially the sets and scenery. Perhaps the production team used CGI (computer generated images) to re-create 1914 Constantinople, but it felt as if I had been catapulted back in time. The movie was shot in rural Spain and Portugal, and it seemed like rural Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. The atmosphere created by these elements was perfect to the place and era.
I suspect that the writers, Terry George and Robin Swicord, had a checklist of the major, grisly components that should be included in a film about the Armenian Genocide, because there was least once scene per item. However, they did a good job of integrating them into the storyline. There are several thrilling scenes, and a few times when the audience was collectively moved to groans, or sighs, or even chuckles.
A Few Flaws
It is difficult to tell a complex story within the time limit allotted to movies. Filmmakers often use a love story to weave the other parts of story around. In my opinion, Snowden (director, Oliver Stone) used this technique well; Titanic (director, James Cameron) did not. The love triangle was one of the weakest parts of the The Promise. I bought the backstory of an existing love between Ana and Chris, but the love between Mikael and Ana was too fast and contrived to ring true to me. Maybe if it had developed more slowly, it would have worked better.
Director Terry George had done an excellent job of explaining, however briefly, the political situation that led to the African genocide in Hotel Rwanda, so I was eager to see how he would handle it in The Promise. I was disappointed. There was no reference—at all—to the causes of the genocide. Turks in the streets, gendarmes and army personnel suddenly rose up and turned on Armenians, without explanation. This, of course, defies logic. Worried that I had missed something, after the movie was over I asked the friend who had accompanied me if she understood from the movie why the genocide happened. She had no idea.
The short scene between American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell) and Talat Pasha (Aaron Neil) also disappointed me. I was familiar with the scene because it was described in the book, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. The actors were fine; the fault lies with the script and direction. If the significant lines that give the scene punch had been included, and had Morgenthau been astounded at the outrageous suggestion of Talat, rather than simply firmly negative, the scene would have had depth and provided insight into the character of both men. It’s a small thing, but as it was, the scene was flat and almost meaningless.
These flaws were serious enough to affect my reaction to the movie, making it less than fully satisfactory.
In summary, I give The Promise 7 out of 10, and recommend seeing it.
Movie poster from imdb.com