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Movie Review: #ThePromise

The Promise stuns us with its horrors, but bores us with its love triangle.

Review by Matt Cummings

With the world seemingly ready to fight another global campaign of death, The Promise comes along to remind us why war is so terrible. Its arrival this week shows us the personal cost of war, complete with all the horrors of genocide and the terrible atrocities which men are capable of producing.

The Armenian Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a kind and gentle man who yearns to learn medicine at a school in Constantinople so that he can help his small village improve their quality of life. He enters into an arranged marriage to pay his board fees, then hurriedly whisks off to the capital city. There, he comes under the care of his well-to-do uncle and begins immediately to flourish. He meets the stunning dancer Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), whose fanciful air is immediately appealing to the lonely Mikael. But WWI is fast approaching, and soon Mikael, Ana, and all of Turkey witness a horror too great to imagine: the Turks are committing genocide on the very same Armenians who have co-existed peacefully with them for hundreds of years. Cataloging the mayhem is the American journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale), whose long working relationship finds himself enamored of Ana. Soon, the three enter a love triangle that WWI seems determined to squash, as they witness killings on scale no one has seen since the Mongols. Bound by his medical duty but conflicted over his love for Ana, Mikael journeys down a dark path that will see his life shattered, his friends placed in mortal danger, with one of them paying the ultimate price for their humanity.

The Promise is a bold and uncompromising view of genocide, lead by the talents of Director Terry George. He keeps the camera squarely focused on these moments, but at the beginning immerses us in Turkish markets, lavish dance halls, and exquisitely-decorated homes. As the focus shifts to the war, George is there as well, presenting us with craggy coastlines, bombed-out buildings, and open water. Some of that action by Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe is cheap-looking - especially some of the handheld during action scenes - but he gets right up to George's actors to show their horror at Turkish actions. George also realizes that other stories will intersect here and does his best tie up every loose end before the credits roll. Some of that is difficult to watch, but most of it will infuriate you that people can make this kind of war on each other. Luckily, George isn't afraid to show us these moments, led by Isaac who brings a warmth and depth to Mikael. He is a genuinely likable if rather vanilla kind of lead, but it's this innocence which Isaac also brings that makes his emotional moments that much more felt. It's hard not to shed a tear when, during the third act, he comes across the dead of his village, rounded up and shot near a stream.

Unfortunately, not all of The Promise is done so well. The love triangle is haphazardly assembled, with the trio never really enjoying the chemistry of the other. Bale particularly feels out of place here, but he never phones in his performance; he's not the only big-name star here, as The Promise is filled with several cameos from Jean Reno and James Cromwell among others. Le Bon will be a bright star one day, but Ana's style and well-traveled heel seems way above Mikael's small-town sensibilities, and it's never fully established why the two fall for each other. But I do give George and Co-Writer Robin Swicord credit for not turning it into a knock-down between Mikael and Chris when they learn of each other's interests in Ana. It is rather convenient that our stars find one another so often as events begin to unfold and overtake them, and their crisscrossing timelines don't feel natural at all. And while the ending is a gut-wrench, one also finds themselves questioning whether these three have telepathy to be there when one pays the ultimate price.

The Promise succeeds only when the light is shed fully on the real story, that of the genocide which to this day Turkey refuses to acknowledge. Such a tragedy deserves an audience, even if what we uncover is an ugly truth. Adding impeccable production values to things doesn't hurt either, from the various location shootings to the exquisite costumes and sets. The score by Composer Gabriel Yared brings some of the grandeur John Barry before heading down the dark path that seems no love is unqualified to endure. And that's the real problem behind The Promise: although I do agree human stories become more powerful when cobbled together with historical fact, this one never gets those assemblies quite in the right order.

The Promise was a 2016 holdout, recently purchased by Open Road and given a much earlier date than the film deserved. Since then, it's been slayed by the critics for choosing relationships over story, which I think is not altogether unfair. True, our characters do happen to find one another through the genocide way too easily, but I never felt that their triangle interfered with what eventually became an experience that's hard to swallow. When the film chooses melodrama over telling a compelling story about genocide, it falters mightily; but one cannot doubt the inhumanity sometimes needs a human touch to bring things down. Coupled with The Lost City of Z, The Promise might be the only intelligent thing we'll see from now until October, but you'd never know it by the way both have been tossed into late April like The Island of Forgotten Toys.

The Promise is a sweeping, grand, and engaging film that will most likely draw you in to its message that war truly makes people do unthinkable things. Once things get going, it becomes a harrowing experience for sure, and you might even find your knuckles growing quite white from all the tension which George concocts. Critics have in my mind unfairly slayed The Promise, and so I'd encourage you to make up your own mind by checking it out. You surely will come away with a better appreciation of our world's first foray into wholesale slaughter, but its message of human suffering is also just as stirring.

The Promise is rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality and has a runtime of 132 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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