Horrible human tragedies — unthinkable calamities involving millions of people — dwarf everything else. If you have a movie about the Holocaust or, as in the case of “The Promise,” the Armenian genocide, the historical event takes precedence. To take unimaginable human suffering and combine it with the standard conventions of movie fiction somehow feels discordant, at best; and at worst, grotesque.
“The Promise,” directed by Terry George, is hardly grotesque, but by the end, it just feels like failed manipulation as it tries to make us care about fictional characters while remembering the real-life horrors of the Ottoman government’s murder of 1.5 million Armenians in the 1910s.
Oscar Isaac plays an ambitious pharmacist, working in an Armenian town. He wants to become a doctor, so he becomes engaged to a woman who he does not love, so he can use the dowry to go to medical school in Istanbul. There he meets a teacher (Charlotte Le Bon), and he likes her and she likes him. In fact, she is beginning to like him better than her American boyfriend, a swashbuckling and somewhat alcoholic journalist (Christian Bale).
So we have two love triangles. The medical student wants to end the engagement and be with his new love, but no, he made a promise. And then, the Turks enter World War I, and the Armenians are immediately under siege. All the young men are drafted and sent to work as slave labor. Towns are pillaged, people are executed. It is carnage, death and real historical calamity ... And with that in mind, how much do we really care which one of these two women ends up in bed with Oscar Isaac?
Yes, there are some well-made scenes: The medical student escapes from slave labor, dives on top of a train, only to realize that he’s riding on a boxcar filled with Armenians being sent to their doom. As lightning flashes and thunder crashes, he struggles to break the lock on a boxcar, and just as he does, he falls off the train. Fortunately, this happens as the train is going over a bridge, so he falls into a body of water ... And so on. Just like in a movie.
Basically, there was a calculation here that didn’t pan out. The idea was that history would add importance to the fictional story, and the fictional story would add drama to the history. Instead, the opposite happened: The historical context renders the fictional story trivial, while the fictional story keeps the audience removed from the history. We end up with an unimportant movie about important events.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality. 2:12. Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Richmond.