Film Review: The Promise

Irish co-writer/director Terry George’s sweeping costume epic The Promise has some shaky facts, a rather gooey central romance and occasionally iffy FX enhancements. While it’s already proven major a box-office bomb, there’s still much here to enjoy.

The wonderfully charismatic central performance by Oscar Isaac (a long way from his roles in recent Star Wars and X-Men outings) grounds the action, bringing heart and even a little humour. While he’s actually Guatemalan-American, you never doubt that he’s Armenian here, as his Mikael tries to survive the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide, something which Turkey still refuses to admit ever happened.

Opening in the village of Sirun, we meet aspiring doctor Mikael, and watch as he agrees to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), the daughter of a wealthy neighbour, so he can afford to travel to the Imperial Medical School in Constantinople. There, befriending Emre (Marwan Kenzari), another student, he also meets the Armenian Ana (the Canadian Charlotte Le Bon), whom he starts falling for, despite the promise of the title and even though she’s involved with famed and sour American reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale), who’s a pro at pontificating speeches and dagger-like stares.

Naturally too much love-triangle romantic nonsense is cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Mikael avoids conscription, but instead winds up in a prison labour camp, and after a train-leaping sequence that feels almost like James-Bond-meets-Schindler’sList, he winds up back home and obliged to carry out what he promised. He’s also been misinformed about several important plot points, and soon the remaining cast members are fleeing across the countryside to escape the massacring Turkish troops, with even Bale’s Chris forced to stop showboating and get involved.

As a Spanish/American co-production filmed in Portugal, Malta and Spain with a multicultural cast (the Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo, the Croatian Rade Šerbedžija, the director’s French pal Jean Reno in a bit, and more) speaking four languages, this understandably can’t help but sometimes hit a few phony notes. But Isaac works hard to keep it as real as possible, and certainly it’s a tale worth telling regardless of the romance stuff.

The Promise is obviously intended as not only a historical account of genuine if hushed-up events, but also a not-so-veiled parable of contemporary times, and all the appalling things happening right now under our very noses. Whether or not we choose to notice, or care.

Rated M. The Promise is in cinemas now

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