‘The Promise’ conveys an emotional World War I history lesson
Directed by: Terry George
Written by: Terry George and Robin Swicord
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Marwan Kenzari
“The Promise” – “There are churches and mosques like you wouldn’t believe.”
In 1914 Constantinople, this is Mikael Boghosian’s (Oscar Isaac) reaction to Turkey’s most prominent city. Although cultural differences can be a source of tension and divisiveness, Turks and Armenians live in relative harmony during this time, not only in this massive cultural center, but also in Mikael’s small village of Siroun.
As director Terry George’s (“Hotel Rwanda” (2004)) picture opens, Mikael – an Armenian - makes a promise to a Maral (Angela Sarafyan), that after two years away at medical school, they will marry when he returns.
In the meantime, George treats Mikael and us to the sheer beauty and pageantry of Constantinople with wondrous sightlines and artistic gifts. Actually, according to www.imdb.com, George did not film in Turkey, but through the magic of cinema, we certainly believe it. Isaac is also very convincing that Mikael is having the time of his life. Learning his chosen profession at the Imperial Medical School, making well-placed friends, spending time with family, and meeting Ana (Charlotte Le Bon).
Ana is seeing an American AP reporter, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), but his drinking has driven a wedge in their relationship, and as it turns out, Mikael and Ana share immediate chemistry. Isaac and Le Bon have fun with their characters’ new friendship - with potential for more - and effectively interject humor, playfulness and outright attraction for one another. They create a classic love rectangle problem with Chris and Maral as the odd ones out, but the familiar formula works here, because Ana and Mikael are very, very likeable.
Although scorned partners are the least of their problems, because when Turkey joins World War I in October 1914, Mikael’s bright, new world is laid to waste.
George immediately shifts the material from a good-natured exploration to a gripping, war-torn drama, laced with romance during a time of chaos, confusion and shattered dreams. Turkey suddenly becomes a place where the previously perceived harmony becomes a distant memory, as the Turkish military begins an elimination of the Armenian people within its own borders. Mikael, his family, Ana, and others who we began to know during the film’s first half hour are immediately endangered, and the picture takes an ambitious approach in capturing this countrywide horror.
The screenplay follows Mikael’s twisting path from a respected medical student to a fleeing war prisoner, and his life and heart are turned upside down. Mikael’s personal anguish bleeds into the frightening Armenian plight that grips the nation, and suddenly, Armenians become nomadic people within their own borders. George captures their hardships by filming many brutal walks through the deserts and forests.
The shifts in tone shake our foundation, but the core relationships between Chris, Ana and Mikael remain intact. Chris, in turn, places himself in constant danger to report on the Turkish atrocities, and Mikael and Ana focus on saving as many Armenians as they can. We have seen these types a war-driven romances before, but the unknown subject matter (at least to this moviegoer) and George’s very high production values keep our eyeballs glued to the screen.
This film must have generated the interest of several well-known actors, because during the second and third acts, some key cameos suddenly appear. I can point to three real surprises, where famous actors take small, supporting roles. Although their arrivals into the film are noteworthy, they also can temporarily distract and pull us out of the story. These cameos are not nearly as disruptive as the constant stream of A-list actor appearances in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998), but it feels the same way, to a lesser degree.
To a greater degree, I keep coming back to Mikael’s words of the churches and mosques, a time of accord among two groups of people who are different, but held mutual respect. I suppose “The Promise” is telling example that peace is fragile and precious, and life does not need a very dramatic push to toss it aside. Well, maybe we should look 103 years into the past, when mosques and churches are spoken in the same sentence with harmony. In 2017, we should be so lucky.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.