Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American, was the driving force behind The Promise. His aim was to make a film about a disputed subject: the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of over one million Armenians in World War I. Kerkorian wanted the story to evoke classic films like Dr. Zhivago.
Good intentions only go so far in filmmaking. The Promise is preachy and formulaic, emphasizing a clichéd love triangle over human tragedies. Its one redeeming quality is Oscar Isaac’s beautifully modulated performance.
The year is 1914. Mikael (Isaac) is an Armenian villager who wants to study medicine in Constantinople but lacks funds. He becomes engaged (in other words, makes a promise) to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), whom he feels he will “come to love”. She has a dowry that will pay for his medical studies, which certainly does not hurt.
Mikael journeys to his uncle’s house in Constantinople, where he will live while he studies. Almost immediately, he meets a glamorous dance instructor, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). PG-13 sparks are everywhere, sort of.
Ana is involved with an American journalist named Chris (Christian Bale), though he seems to take their relationship more seriously than she does. Chris keeps getting into trouble while trying to follow up on reports of atrocities committed against Armenians.
Much as he cares for Ana, Chris feels the Armenian issues take precedence. This would clear the way for Mikael and Ana, if not for that pesky promise to Maral. Writers George and Robin Swicord give these circumstances precedence over the Armenian situation.
Not that George omits depictions of war or its cruelties. Hostilities commence, and Mikael winds up on a brutal labor detail. One scene that remains in memory has Mikael clinging to the side of a moving train while surveying the wreckage all around him. Here, as throughout, Javier Aquirresarobe (The Others, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) does fine work.
As mentioned before, Isaac turns in an impressive performance. Isaac manages to bring life to Mikael through small gestures and expressions. It is a fine example of an actor effectively compensating for an underwritten part. When called upon to speak, Isaac manages the accent without a hitch (all characters in the film speak English).
Shohreh Aghdashloo is also quite good as Mikael’s stalwart mother.
I am a big fan of Christian Bale, but I think he is wasted in this film. Kerkorian intended The Promise to be like Dr. Zhivago; that means the role of Chris is a combination of Antipov/Strelnikov and Komarovsky. I have no idea what that character would be-apparently, neither do George and Swicord.
It is obvious that Kerkorian and company spent quite a lot of money on The Promise. I truly wish these efforts had resulted in a more stirring and original film.
Theme: Not The Western Front
Film Appreciation: Dr. Zhivago http://www.thinkingcinema.com/film-appreciation-dr-zhivago/
Not The Western Front: List For Week Ending April 23, 2017 http://www.thinkingcinema.com/not-the-western-front-list-for-week-ending-april-26-2017/