Terry George’s The Promise wants to be a great American epic along the lines of Doctor Zhivago. At times, the film does succeed in capturing the spirit of a classic epic. The scale of the picture is grand, the performances can be quite powerful at times, and the subject matter is certainly worth exploring. Alas, The Promise also gets saddled with a dull love triangle and a runtime that could’ve been cut down by at least twenty minutes. Is it worth taking the good with the bad, though? On the whole, yes, but don’t expect it to receive much recognition come Oscar time.
From indies like Inside Llewyn Davis, to blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to television dramas like Show Me a Hero, Oscar Isaac has sprouted into one of our most impressive young actors. He gives another great performance here as Mikael, who travels from the Turkish Empire to Constantinople in hopes of becoming a doctor. Although Mikael excels as a medical student, he soon finds himself fighting for his life in a labor camp on the brink of World War I. Eventually reuniting with his parents at their village, Mikael is forced to marry the daughter of a wealthy family in order to preserve his freedom. Unfortunately, this means he must give up the true love of his life.
While in Constantinople, Mikael fell in love with an Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). Although she shares the same feelings, Ana is already involved with an American journalist named Chris Myers (Christian Bale). Chris is an honorable man that loves Ana deeply, but it’s clear that his job and cause take precedence. He’s kind of like Victor Laszlo from Casablanca. It’s just too bad Mikael and Ana aren’t exactly Rick and Ilsa. This leads us to the film’s biggest problem: our lovers aren’t that interesting, at least when they’re together.
Although Isaac and Le Bon both give strong individual performances, their chemistry is like plain bread. There’s really not much to their love story other than all the overused tropes we’ve seen a million times before. Whenever a scene shifts back to them, you just want to reach for a remote and press fast-forward. As far as historical fiction romances go, it’s not Pearl Harbor bad, but Titanic it ain’t.
Even if the romance is a bore, it’s hard not to admire The Promise on a technical level. The sets, cinematography, and sound design are all topnotch for the most part, amounting to several genuinely intense sequences. The highlight is a heart-pounding set piece where Mikael must hang off the side of a train packed with prisoners, narrowly dodging tunnels as the rain plummets down. Aside from a couple cheap green screen effects, George turns in a polished product that creates a true sense of doom.
Even if the romance is a bore, it’s hard not to admire The Promise on a technical level.
The film additionally does a respectable job at depicting the Armenian Genocide. Granted, a majority of the characters here are fictional, but the audience still feels the sense of loss and desperation that came with this unspeakable tragedy. This not only shines through the production values, but the performances as well with Shohreh Aghdashloo in particular delivering an empathetic performance as Mikael’s mother. So much like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, The Promise works as a period epic and falls short as a love story. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot to enjoy, even if the film doesn’t fully live up to its promise.