“THE PROMISE” — 2½ stars — Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Charlotte Le Bon, Roman Mitichyan; PG-13 (thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality); in general release
"The Promise" is the story of a love triangle set against the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I. Its protagonist is an Armenian medical student who arrives in Constantinople to pursue his dreams of becoming a doctor, but finds those dreams derailed by the war.
The film opens in 1914, in a small village in southern Turkey, where a young apothecary named Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) has just become engaged to a local girl named Maral (Angela Sarafyan). Maral's dowry enables Mikael to leave for medical school in Constantinople, which he hopes to complete quickly in order to return and marry his bride-to-be.
When Mikael arrives in Constantinople, he falls in with his uncle Mesrob (Igal Naor), a wealthy shop owner who offers his nephew the best of a city that is considered the gateway between Europe and Asia. He also meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a young and cultured Armenian woman who teaches Mesrob's children.
Mikael is quickly enchanted by Ana, but holds true to his promise to Maral — hence the title of the film. At any rate, Ana is involved with an American journalist named Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who is on hand for the Associated Press to document the escalating tensions between the Turks and their various minority populations.
Those tensions go from bad to worse once war officially breaks out. Mikael is able to avoid the draft thanks to the intervention of a fellow medical student with connections (Marwan Kenzari), but eventually all his loopholes are closed, and Mikael winds up in a labor camp. In the meantime, Myers sees populations of Armenians driven from their homes in the first stages of a statewide extermination.
From here, "The Promise" takes the form of a historical epic, weaving the paths of its three primary characters as their interconnected relationships play against a tragic background.
Director Terry George, who tackled the theme of genocide earlier in his career with 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda,” has indicated to deadline.com that one goal with "The Promise" — aside from shedding light on a little-known and still controversial chapter in history — was to echo the “old-fashioned” sweeping romantic drama of films like "Doctor Zhivago" and “Reds.” But too often, the machinations of the film's romance clash with the serious and tragic nature of its backdrop.
As you might imagine, Mikael's commitment to Ana wavers, and at times the design of the plot feels like it manipulates its historical content to accommodate its romance, rather than the other way around. Some audiences may be more likely to draw comparisons between "The Promise" and "Titanic," rather than “Doctor Zhivago.”
It could be that 21st-century audiences have become so accustomed to the gritty, documentary-style exploration of such subjects that the romantic element undercuts the message, leaving viewers wishing for a more serious examination of the subject. The film definitely has its moments, and at arm's length, "The Promise" will resonate. But overall, it feels like a missed opportunity, a good film that could have been much better.
“The Promise” is rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality; running time: 132 minutes.