Movies have always had the powerful ability to not only entertain, but to inform. Movies can bring attention to little-acknowledged moments of history, whether good or bad, by telling a story that will (hopefully) intrigue an audience and push them to open their eyes to the past, and, hopefully, to learn from it.
Starting in 1915, the ruling Turks of the Ottoman Empire claimed to begin a resettlement of Armenians throughout the countryside, when in fact it was the beginning of the mass slaughter of an ethnic group that ultimately claimed over a million lives. It is one of those shameful moments in history that was somewhat buried except by the survivors who drew attention to what happened. Still, when World War I exploded around the same time, apparently there were countless atrocities going around so that the Armenian Genocide ended up getting shelved away in the history books.
To give a dramatic arc to explain a story so big and so horrible, The Promise focuses on an Armenian villager named Mikael (Oscar Isaac). Mikael has promised to marry a local woman whom he barely knows so that he can use her dowry to go to medical school in Constantinople. When he returns, he’ll marry and be the educated doctor he strives to be. But some things get in the way. Constantinople proves to be glamorous, cosmopolitan, and exciting, due in no small part to the beguiling French-educated Armenian Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who tests Mikael’s promise that he left in the village. To make things more difficult, Ana is already with a good man named Chris Meyers (Christian Bale) a globe-trotting Associated Press journalist. To make things more MORE difficult, there are stirrings of the Turkish government cracking down on Armenians, starting with throwing intellectuals into prison and escalating to horrific violence and slaughter.
The Promise follows this trio of characters from riots to labor camps to hiding in cabins to leading orphans through the woods. A lot is covered in the film, as real events are squeezed between all the scenes of the tired love triangle that is supposed to anchor our interest in the characters. The love triangle becomes a silly distraction when the story itself is intriguing and important. Bale, as the American journalist, does his best being a good guy despite knowing his lady is stepping out on him with his friend. The female characters (oh, a shame to waste Shohreh Aghdashloo) are all generally underwritten and stereotypical (domineering mother, saintly village wife, seductive yet saintly city woman). Ultimately, Oscar Isaac manages to wring the emotion that he can out of a few disturbing and horrifically sad scenes, trying with the force of his will to raise the quality of the picture.
The Promise isn’t a terrible movie. Coming from director Terry George of Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father fame, the film has its heart in the right place. At the end of the film, it will spur you to find out about this oft-ignored moment in history. And by that measure, the movie succeeds. I just wish it was better.