by Pete Hammond
Old-fashioned filmmaking to its core, The Promise is simply the kind of movie Hollywood is not interested in making anymore and, if you listen to predictions of impending box office doom, apparently the kind of movie audiences aren’t craving to see. That’s too bad because in the hands of Oscar-winning director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda ), who also co-wrote it with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord, the film starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale is an inspiring and sweeping romantic epic in the vein of Doctor Zhivago. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch) it certainly is not in that league as a piece of classic cinema, but with a reported budget of $90 million-$100 million, it is heartening to see anyone care to even attempt a movie on this scale and subject matter these days. Let’s face it, the days of David Lean are in the rearview mirror of this comic book hero-obsessed industry. It’s nice to see someone try something different.
Set in 1914 around the end of the Ottoman Empire, the film depicts the not-often-filmed Armenian genocide, during which 1.5 million died, and essentially centers on a love triangle. Medical student Michael (Isaac) is committed to wed a local girl, but there is no passion in this arranged union. He soon falls for Ana (Charlotte LeBon), the more glamorous fellow Armenian who also happens to be the girlfriend of Chris (Bale), an American Associated Press war correspondent who is determined to document the atrocities happening around them. Thus the personal conflict is played out against historical events.
Michael, arriving to study in Constantinople where he meets Ana, is set on eventually bringing modern medicine practices back to his primitive village in Southern Turkey, actually a place that has seen Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians living in some sort of harmony for centuries. That is all threatened when the Turks team with the Germans just as WWI is breaking out, and the crumbling Empire sets out against its own ethnic minorities. Michael’s allegiance to his people, as well as his budding romance with Ana, provide a real quandary as all these characters get caught up in circumstances careening out of control. One scene where Michael and Chris come upon the mass killing of his own villagers, now lying dead by a river, is particularly powerful stuff, similar to the heart-rending and uncompromising images George served up in his very fine 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, which dealt with human atrocities of another era.
Isaac is the acting standout here, but all the players are excellent including the wonderful Iranian star Shoreh Aghdashloo as his mother. It is an epic story to be sure and one told recently in another movie revolving around the same subject matter, The Ottoman Lieutenant, which quickly came and went. This one was fully financed by the late Armenian entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian and is a well-intentioned movie that ultimately seems more interested in getting this story back in the spotlight so that it can never be forgotten. Its producers, led by Eric Esrailian, Mike Medavoy and William Horberg, promise that proceeds will be going to charity, not into their own pockets. It is an admiral undertaking and a movie well worth seeing.
Open Road is handling distribution for The Promise, which premiered at Toronto last year and immediately created controversy among those who claim it is fabricating the truth of what really happened, many denying to this day that it ever did happen. IMDb was suspiciously flooded with users issuing one-star ratings for a film that had not been shown anywhere but a couple of screenings at Toronto. Clearly the deck is stacked against its success, but you have to admire these determined filmmakers for bringing this tragic dark spot of history to the screen in such a skillful way. Open Road opens the film on Friday.