Review: “The Promise”
Bringing to light a denied piece of history, “The Promise” is a revelation of truth. The film will move you to tears but also teaches a great deal about the Armenian Genocide, a dark chapter in history. While it was heartbreaking to watch at times, the movie was beautiful and you are wrapped up in the story from beginning to end.
“The Promise” tells the story of a love triangle between an Armenian medical student Mikael (Oscar Isaac), a beautiful Armenian woman Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), raised in Paris, and an American journalist Chris (Christian Bale) during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide. Mikael leaves his village to become a doctor, having been betrothed to a rich village woman in exchange for her dowry of 400 gold coins. He says goodbye to his fiancé, Maral (Angela Sarafyan), his father Vartan (Kevork Malikyan) and his mother Marta (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and uses the money to travel to Constantinople for medical school. While there, he stays with his wealthy uncle, Mesrob (Igal Naor) who introduces him to Ana. She is the tutor for his uncle’s daughters and is involved with Chris, an American reporter for the Associated Press. Mikael also befriends the son of a powerful General, Emre (Marwan Kenzari) a fellow student.
Over time, Mikael becomes emotionally involved with Ana, despite his promise to wed and her romantic entanglement with Chris. When the Ottoman Empire begins rounding up Armenians, he manages to temporarily evade conscription due to the intervention of his friend, Emre. Just as he comes to the realization that he’s in love with Ana, though, he finds out his uncle has been imprisoned. He attempts to save him but ends up sent to a prison labor camp himself. After a fellow prisoner blows up their Turkish captors, Mikael manages to escape and reach his village where his family persuades him to wed his betrothed and escape to a cabin in the mountains.
Meanwhile, Ana and Chris have rescued Mikael’s aunt and nieces, bringing them to safety with their family. They leave to find a way to help children who have been orphaned by the genocide. Miral, Mikael’s wife gets pregnant but is terribly sick so Mikael brings her to his mother. There, he finds out about Ana and Chris’s visit and seeks their aid to get his family to safety from the Turkish threat. The three travel back to Mikael’s village, only to find soldiers leaving. Mikael and Chris discover that most of the people have been massacred, only his mother and one niece left alive. Attempting to distract the soldiers, Chris is captured while Ana and Mikael escape into the mountains with other refugees. There, they are determined to fight the Turkish army, hoping to hold them off long enough to escape down the back side to the coast as the French army heads to their rescue.
It is difficult to be able to express this movie in words. It is a film that must be experienced and words fail to convey the power of this narrative. To begin, the details of the era bring this film to life. The writers Terry George (also directing) and Robin Swicord have brought together the elements of the time and woven in individual plights into the greater backdrop of the Armenian Genocide. It is difficult to take any story about war and develop it in a way that engages viewers but they managed to keep both my husband and I wrapped up in the story to the very end. Even amongst the darker points, there are little highlighted moments of beauty, such as Ana singing Alouette with the children while the camp waits for war in the morning. There are also moments of heartbreaking poignancy such as when Mikael loses his family that left the audience in tears.
Part of why the film is so engaging is the acting. Both Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon have an amazing chemistry that sizzles between them, each touch making you truly see the love between them, the desire for each other. Equally believable is the tenderness between Charlotte and Christian Bale, in the scenes of their relationship. While Ana is pulled toward Mikael, it is important to see how that affects Chris. Christian Bale brings a subtle emotion to his character as he observes Ana and Mikael in an embrace. His eyes show the hurt that his character feels so well that you feel like you are in his place. What is most endearing is that while Chris and Mikael do vie, neither man is shown to blame Ana or behave in any negative fashion toward her, only showing love and respect toward her and each other. These beautiful relationships and the acting are what truly makes this film shine.
But these are not the only actors who portray their roles well. Shohreh Aghdashloo as Marta, Mikael’s mother is phenomenal. She is warm, powerful and authentic, playing a loving but stubborn mother. Marwan Kenzari as Emre captures his character well, playing the role of playboy and friend with ease, able to portray unease and tension equally well. Even tiny parts like the reverend of a church and laborers in camps manage to convey the emotionality of this film and their characters. Every actor does an amazing job with their roles.
There is very little that I didn’t like. Most of it is technical in nature. There were points in the film that the camera stays focused on Mikael’s character, even as it shakes around. A wider angle would likely have been better for those times. The film was also a bit long. While I enjoyed the story, there were points in it that could have been compressed to allow for a shorter film. But in the end, this compares favorably amongst the historical films I’ve viewed in the last few months and stands out because of the ability to keep the viewer focused on the emotions of the characters and the story.
This story is dark and there are scenes of violence in it. I think they were needed to convey the darkness of the events of this era of history. Without them, you would have little context for understanding the Armenian deaths and why this is referred to as a Genocide. And they are balanced with scenes of joy and beauty to both alleviate some of that heaviness and bring a deeper poignancy to the film’s ending.
If you want to learn about the Armenian people, to learn about this point in history and if you like historical films, I recommend this highly. It broke my heart, it made me cry, but it created a deeper understanding of the history, of this part of the world and made me emotionally connect to a different culture than my own. It resonates truth and was beautiful even in its darkest scenes.
Rating: 5 stars