Weighed down by the worthiness of its intentions, The Promise is a big, barren wartime romance that approaches the Armenian genocide with too much calculation and not nearly enough heat.
It can happen all too easily. An otherwise highly competent director (in this case, Terry George) succumbs to the lure of addressing a real-life atrocity (here, the still-contested slaughter of more than a million peaceful Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I). Somewhere along the way, though, the need to do justice to the slain and call out the perpetrators becomes a pillow that smothers every spark of originality. Even actors with the heft of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale — playing an Armenian apothecary named Mikael and an American war reporter named Chris — appear muffled and indistinct.
This dimming extends to an excruciatingly corny plot that has both characters vie for the twinkling affections of Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a Paris-educated, terminally cute tutor. But first Mikael must finagle a dowry to finance medical school in Constantinople, so he promises to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a lovely innocent from his village. Once in the grip of the city and Ana’s charms, however, Mikael is lost; the combined demands of a soggy love triangle and the approach of war soon banish all thoughts of marriage — to Maral, at least.
Mikael, then, is not particularly sympathetic, and Chris is a humorless newshound; so when the jackboots tramp and the killing begins, their fates are of less concern than they should be. And while Mikael endures the horrors of an Ottoman work camp, and Chris and Ana are busily saving orphans at a Protestant mission, their director — who was infinitely more adept with his other genocide movie, Hotel Rwanda — appears oblivious to the story’s inadequacies. Aspiring to the sweep of epics like Doctor Zhivago and Reds, George achieves neither the romantic delirium of the first nor the sheer swaggering gumption of the second.
Money does not seem to have been the problem: The film reportedly cost almost $100 million, and some of it is even on the screen. Yet we never forget for one second that we’re watching actors in fancy dress; behind the curtain of cattle cars and starving workers, above the noise of the explosions, we can hear the moviemaking machinery clank and whir.
In 2002, the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan took a more modest yet ultimately more potent path to the genocide with his underseen Ararat. Though not entirely successful, that film — which directly addressed the cinematic challenge of representing history — profited from sharply perceptive writing and a studious avoidance of melodrama. With even one of these attributes, The Promise might have had a chance.