Film Review | The Promise Serves as a Traditional Melodrama in the Face of Historical Genocide

The Promise is a very traditional tale – a love story which plays out against an important period of history. Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Michael, an Armenian who emigrates to Constantinople to become a medical student. To fund his studies, he accepts payment to marry a woman from his village, Maral (Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan). Yet, in Constantinople he meets his true love – a half-Armenian, half-French artist named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, last year’s underrated Bastille Day), someone also in a relationship with another – Christian Bale’s Chris – an American journalist. As the Turkish begin to persecute Armenians – comparable to German’s treatment of Jews during WWII – Michael and Ana battle against political and personal circumstances to be with each other.

Directed by Hotel Rwanda’s Terry George, The Promise feels slightly nostalgic in how simple and devoid of irony it is. It’s the type of sweeping tale that evokes memories of Doctor Zhivago or Casablanca, movies that Hollywood don’t seem to make any more. While it’s not of the same calibre of these works – the script suffers from typical exposition and short-cuts that are irritating but necessary in telling such a big story – it is quite watchable for reasons which it shares with the typical major studio epic.

Although a little too glossy, the lavish Turkish setting is easy on the eye. The cast is great. Isaac is a well-chosen lead who has the capacity to convey the extreme mental and physical agony he suffers throughout the movie in just the way he moves. Bale does fine work as a troubled but noble character who places his career above his wife because he feels it’s too important not to. Le Bon is radiant. Although one wishes the film showed more of Ana’s perspective on events (something also applicable to Sarafyan’s role), she charms in the early scenes and evokes sadness in the latter. Over the course of the drama, various character actors appear to add some flavour. Following on from his scene-stealing work on Tom Hardy’s Taboo, Tom Hollander in his ten-minute stint walks away with The Promise, playing an Armenian former clown trapped with Michael in a concentration camp. Similarly, James Cromwell adds heft as a colleague of Chris’ in some great scenes.

Unlike the recent, similar love-story/historical drama Free State of Jones, The Promise is well-paced – breezing through its two-hour running time. Admittedly, George’s film would be better if it was more stylistically or narratively adventurous. Yet, that said it is nice occasionally to watch something old-fashioned and earnest in contrast to more daring works like Elle or The Handmaiden. Fans of traditional cinema may enjoy The Promise, despite its performances and its lavish setting being the only things that separate it from similar works.

The Promise is in cinemas from Friday the 28th April.

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