The Promise is set in 1914, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), a poor Armenian apothecary in the village of Siroun high up in the mountains of southern Turkey, dreams of bigger things. He gets engaged to local maiden Maral (Angela Sarafyan), and uses the dowry paid by her family to put himself through medical school in the city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), promising to return once he becomes a full-fledged doctor.
But then Mikael crosses paths with tutor Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon). She’s the paramour of one Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American journalist who has arrived in Turkey to uncover explosive political secrets to the rest of the world. Upon finding out about their shared Armenian heritage, Mikael and Ana grow closer and his resolve starts to waver.
And just when things start to get complicated, the three of them find themselves swept up in the start of the Armenian genocide as the Turks turn against Armenian Christians. All thoughts of love are pushed aside as the conflict grows and everyone is caught up in a desperate fight for survival.
The titular promise of the movie refers to several things: Mikael’s vow to his betrothed, his promise to return home, and his promise to himself to survive the genocide. But beyond that, the movie also promises to tell the story of the Armenian genocide to a bigger audience, that the atrocities and the people who have died will never be forgotten.
I’m ashamed to admit that before doing research for this movie review, I knew next to nothing about this historical tragedy. But here are the historical facts that have been established beyond doubt. The Armenian genocide took place over almost a decade and saw the systematic murder of thousands of villagers by the Ottomans. The men were sent to labour camps while the women and children were forcibly marched out of Turkey, many of whom died in the process.
It is estimated that more than 1.5 million Armenians died from 1914 to 1923, something that the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge to this day.
In this respect, The Promise makes a valiant effort to inform its audience about the genocide. It doesn’t shy away from the death, despair and desperation of the Armenians. But it also says little about the historical context behind the genocide beyond cursory comments about how the Armenians are different from the Turks.
It also touches on press censorship in authoritarian regimes as Chris Myers is imprisoned for spying and telling lies (basically what the Turks felt were fake news), but even that issue is depicted in rather broad strokes, swept aside in order to give full attention to the plight of the Armenians.
With such an important message, however, it was disappointing to see that the movie’s Achilles heel was the central love triangle itself. As much as I am a fan of all the three leads, there was barely any chemistry between them and the ensuing romance left me feeling rather cold. The love triangle was so dull that if it weren’t for the message behind The Promise, I would’ve dismissed it as yet another vanity project.
The irony of the Guatemalan-American Isaac and the French Le Bon playing Armenian characters also wasn’t lost on me, though I was surprised to find that Sarafyan (better known as Clementine in HBO’s hit series Westworld) was of Armenian descent. If anything, such was the collective fame of Bale and Isaac that I actually found their presence in the movie a little distracting, especially since Isaac spoke with a cringeworthy Armenian accent. At times, his accent hampered his speech and made his dialogue difficult to understand. This was especially confusing since there were other characters with similar accents who fared better at it.
That said, The Promise is an important movie. It has already suffered from an astroturfing campaign driven by deniers of the genocide, resulting in a rather uneven score on IMDB. Particularly in today’s political climate, I do think that there’s some value in going back in our recent history and seeing how humankind is still capable of such cruelty, if only to make sure that it never happens again.
The Promise opens in Singapore on Thursday, June 22. If you’re into historical dramas, check out our review of Viceroy’s House.