"The Promise" is another in a long spate of true events portrayed in film in which one ethnicity attempts to vanquish another. Though "The Promise" is based on fictional characters, it nonetheless gives a heartbreaking account of the genocide committed by Turkish Muslims against Armenian Christians as the once-mighty Ottoman Empire begins to collapse at the start of World War I in 1914.
Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is adamant about becoming a doctor. He agrees to an arranged marriage to Maral (Angela Sarafyan) in order to secure her dowry which will enable him to study medicine in Constantinople. He leaves behind his peaceful village of Siroun in Southern Turkey where Muslims and Christians have lived and worked together for centuries.
When he arrives in Constantinople, Michael takes a room in his wealthy uncle, Mustafa's (Numan Acer) home, where he meets Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), an artist recently returned from Paris. She has been squired back to the area by Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American photojournalist who is totally smitten with the lovely, lively Ana. But Michael and Ana form a bond over their same heritage and love of their homeland. Meanwhile, the Turks have formed an alliance with Germany, and the ethnic cleansing of Southern Turkey has begun.
"The Promise" is directed by Terry George, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Swicord. George also co-wrote and directed "Hotel Rwanda" (2004), another account of genocide based on the real actions of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who saved over a thousand Tutsi refugees. Whereas that screenplay was profoundly gripping, the plotline of "The Promise" is ultimately too predictable.
I have often written that good actors --- even great actors --- can only do so much with a less-than-promising script, and so goes "The Promise". Isaac, Bale and Le Bon each fit their roles well, and their accomplished acting skills lift the screenplay as much as they are able.
Isaac is especially believable, playing Michael with a not-too-strident fierceness. And thankfully Bale does not overact, as he is sometimes prone. Le Bon is a beauty, no doubt, but I fear she is eclipsed by Sarafyan, whose role is much smaller, and yet much more effective.
"The Promise", though beautifully filmed by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, is not the engrossing entertainment one may have expected. It utilizes the oft-told tale of two men in love with the same woman, and not particularly well --- or original. George uses the plight of refugee children to tug at the audience's heartstrings without fully developing any of their characters --- even Mustafa's two daughters who are caught up in the tragic machinations of the time.
The ending, which is meant to give a sense of satisfaction to the viewer, by tying up loose ends, fails in its neatness. As a gorgeous period piece, "The Promise" falls short.
Opinion: Wait for DVD
Stating the obvious, ethnic cleansing has to be mankind's most abhorrent legacy. With his latest film, "The Promise", Oscar-winning director Terry George places the spotlight squarely on a little-known act of genocide, that of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of Turkish Muslims in 1915.
George knows a thing or two about the subject matter, having been Oscar-nominated for writing and directing the searing "Hotel Rwanda" (2004). He won the statuette a decade later for Best Short Film, "The Shore".
With "The Promise", George ardently wanted to educate movie audiences about the horrific systematic murder of innocent Armenian Christians. Inexplicably, they lived side-by-side with Turkish Muslims for centuries, yet something happened in that region, only slightly more than 100 years ago, to change the harmony.
The film doesn't go into why the Turks hated, or felt threatened by, the Armenians. In the words of a Turkish army officer, though, the Armenians were a "tumor" to be eradicated.
"The Promise" is an emotional and often poignant story that is captivating for both its action sequences and its dual love story. Oscar Isaac again proves his acting prowess as the idealistic medical student, Michael Boghosian, whose plans for a career as a doctor are thwarted when he is imprisoned by the Turkish military.
Christian Bale is world-famous American photojournalist Chris Myers who covers the atrocities, partly to be close to Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a beautiful Armenian woman he met in Paris. The problem for Myers is that he has a rival in Michael for Ana's attention.
The performances by all three leads are excellent. Isaac and Bale are established, no one can doubt their authenticity as film stars. But Le Bon, the Montreal-born starlet first noticed by this critic in the Helen Mirren vehicle "The Hundred-Foot Journey" (2014), and later that year in Robert Zemeckis' "The Walk", shines as Ana. Le Bon offers a wide range of emotions in "The Promise" ---- grief, hurt, surprise and grit, to name a few. And she's also quite adorable.
Veteran Irani Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo --- you'll recognize her face if not her name --- plays Michael's mother Marta. She starred in "The Stoning of Soraya M" (2009) and successfully evokes audience empathy in this role. The great James Cromwell appears briefly as an American ambassador, but it's a meaty role that can't be measured by time on screen. His character is as heroic as any of the resistance fighters, but he does it with words.
"The Promise" is a stirring epic of a sordid time in world history. Its love triangle provides just the right amount of apolitical intrigue the movie demands.
Opinion: See It Now!