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The Promise •1/2

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
Director: Terry George
Screenplay: Terry George, Robin Swicord
Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 133 minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2017



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, do you promise to review this next movie with me?

OK. But I don’t see much promise in a 5-Reel review. Let’s recap:

The story begins in 1914 with a young apothecary named Mikael (Oscar Isaac) leaving his small town of Sirun in Turkey to attend medical school in Constantinople. Mikael promises to marry a young woman in Sirun and uses her dowry to finance his schooling. At med school, Mikael meets Emri (Marwan Kenzari), the nephew of a high ranking Turkish government official. Mikael also meets Chris (Christian Bale), an American AP reporter, and Chris’s lovely girlfriend Ana (Charlotte Le Bon).

It’s not long before Mikael falls in love with Ana. But their stars are crossed because just as they realize their love, the Turks attack the Armenians. Emri is drafted into the army and Mikael is captured as a slave to lay train tracks for the Turkish army. Chris goes undercover to report on the atrocities the Turkish army commits against the Armenian people while Ana works with churches to save orphans. Mikael escapes from the Turkish army and returns to his village where he marries his betrothed and goes into hiding.

Greg, The Promise is a decent movie that could have been, perhaps should have been, a grand, sweeping, memorable epic. The story of the genocide of the Armenian people deserved Oscar-worthy treatment. There is the tremendous suffering of an entire people, death on an unimaginable scale, incredible heroism, the worst kind of villainy, treachery, bravery, romance, and more. Yet we’re only left with a semi-decent movie. That’s really a shame.

What went wrong exactly? Greg, I’m sure you have your opinions and I’m eager to hear them. My own feeling is that this film is a near-miss. The filmmakers’ treatment of the genocide is done well, but the romantic triangle involving Mikael, Ana, and Chris has all the depth and complexity of a slice of white bread. These three lovers are all brave, selfless heroes who show no reaction to the triangle except show acceptance of it and tolerance for the other parties involved. That’s commendable, I suppose, but it’s hardly the stuff of good drama. By the end of the movie I was left wondering why they bothered to include so much material about a love triangle that goes nowhere.

Scott, we’ve seen a lot of “cause” movies in the last 5 years – and we’re going to see more soon, I guarantee. The problem with “cause” films is that they serve more to educate the audience about the cause than to deliver a compelling story. The Promise breaks its promise because it doesn’t let us know it is a cause film. It draws us in with the promise of a story about love in a distant land. Instead, it delivers a one-sided view of the Armenian genocide. The would have done better to create a documentary.

You’re right, Scott. The Promise is a lackluster story of three people we don’t really care about. We never spend enough time with these people to “bind” with them and develop an affinity towards them that would make us care when something bad happens. When we see a village of Armenians left for dead in a river, they are a nameless, faceless mass and it is hard to get worked up over their demise. To make this even more difficult to get invested in this film, this is an event that happened in a foreign land, to a foreign people, over one hundred years ago. It’s just not compelling enough to make a difference in our everyday lives. In addition, there’s no “call to action.” What do we do with this new information? We can’t bring these poor people back from the dead. We are left with a “so what” feeling since we don’t know these people, they have been dead over 100 years, and the story we were promised was a ruse to give us a history lesson. It’s just not engaging.

Well, in this film’s defense, there are plenty of compelling historical movies showing the atrocities of human evil. I’m thinking of Schindler’s List, for example. If done well, these movies tell an important story that can be riveting and must never be forgotten. The Promise just isn’t in the same league as Schindler’s List, for reasons that we’ve both mentioned.

All three major characters in The Promise are put to the test multiple times throughout the film, and all three show gallantry and courage to the extreme. The severe situations confronting them brought our steely resolve and inspiring selflessness. My main complaint is that the characters are a bit too perfect. Effective characters, even heroes, have flaws, and in fact a hero’s flaws make her even more heroic, or at least give her more heroic potential. The only flaw we see among Mikael, Anna, and Chris is perhaps Chris’s occasional heaving drinking. We need more depth from our heroes for them to come alive on the screen and for us to relate to them.

Actually, I had little sympathy for Mikael and Ana because they were adulterers. Mikael had taken a woman’s dowry with the promise to become a doctor and return to marry her and raise a family in their village. Ana is attached to Chris but takes up with Mikael. Mikael falls in love with Ana and begins to make plans to leave his betrothed. This is not a situation where he was left with no other options. He simply preferred Ana over his fiance. He’s a bit of a jerk and I didn’t have any sympathy for his plight.  When war breaks out, Mikael is imprisoned and Ana returns to Chris expecting him to take her back. And when Mikael turns up alive, she runs back into his arms. These are not the actions of noble individuals.

As for transformations, it’s hard to see who transforms in this story. By the end of the movie, Chris is still the brave American journalist. Anna is still the adorable and charming ingenue. And Mikael is the bereaved adulterer. The lack of transformation in this story is another reason the whole story falls flat.

The Promise had promise but squandered it by juxtaposing a romance alongside the genocidal murder of almost 2 million people. If you were going to make a movie about a genocide, would you name the movie after the largely irrelevant romance that transpires during the atrocity? This miscalculation neuters the movie, leaving us unsatisfied by characters whose love lives don’t really move us in any meaningful way. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

Our three heroes have all the qualities of good heroes but are rather one-dimensional. They certainly go on the hero’s journey, encounter obstacles, collide with enemies and receive help from friends. Some aspects of these hero journeys are worth viewing but they aren’t terribly memorable. Moreover, there isn’t the all-essential hero’s transformation to be seen anywhere, except perhaps with the character of Emri, who faints during a surgical operation, has the courage to inform the US Ambassador about Chris’s imprisonment, and is then executed by the Turks. These hero journeys earn 3 Heroes out of 5, and the transformations (or lack thereof) deserve a rating of 1 transformation Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

The Promise is a lackluster story of a genocide that occurred to people we don’t know over 100 years ago. It’s hard to get worked up over the events without becoming attached to the people in the story – and the filmmakers never gave us that chance. I give The Promise 1 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters in this story aren’t very heroic. Mikael and Ana are cheaters. Only Chris and Emri display heroic qualities that we admire. I give them 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And there are no transformations of note. Everyone ends up pretty much as they started. I give this movie 1 Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

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