The Promise is a Film by Terry George, the same writer-director who brought us the terrifying vision of genocide in Africa, Hotel Rwanda. He's covering an epic romance drama in the same sweeping fashion as David Lean's Doctor Zhivago set against the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The Promise hinges on a love triangle between Mikael, a gifted apothecary turned medical student, Ana, a budding artist and her partner, Chris, an American journalist. While the windswept romance remains centre stage, George keeps the Armenian genocide as the backdrop, encountering some similar issues to Sean Penn's well-meaning yet fundamentally-flawed, The Last Face.
We're whisked from a small town to the ornate churches and architecture of Constantinople, Turkey, where our young Mikael enrolls at a medical academy in 1914. Being betrothed to a woman from his community, things become more complicated when he's introduced to the beautiful Ana and her stoic partner, Chris. The wartime situation aggravates matters of the heart as Mikael, Ana and Chris are subject to the chaos of hostile powers, intercepted by soldiers and fall in the path of an ever-encroaching army.
Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, who demonstrates his versatility in The Promise, managing to keep the thread of the film almost based on his performance alone. Charlotte Le Bon is given a chance to stretch her wings in a role that could've been based on Princess Diana, while Christian Bale delves into another serious role that recalls his performances in films like The Flowers of War and Empire of the Sun. The Flowers of War serves as a reasonable litmus test to decide whether you should see The Promise, since both films have a similar balance of drama, war, ethical, melodrama and symbolic power.
"It's safe as houses, not safe as horses..."
Part history, part drama, The Promise plays out like a sprawling Biblical epic with a soaring score to match the vivid visuals. Journeying through parts of Armenia on donkey, gathering with crowds and weaving between churches and pastors, there's a spiritual dimension to the film as the story of Moses reverberates. While the Biblical element is mostly experienced in the scope of The Promise, rather than the dialogue, the sheer weight of the drama threatens its foundations. The net result is an unwieldy multi-genre film that moves from sweeping romance to dusty survival to harrowing historical war film. These transitions make the continual evolution entertaining, yet keep one on the periphery.
The central concept could have used more gravity and time in setting the scene and loses some power into the third act. Much like Australia, the quality of the ingredients make some moments heartbreaking and powerful, yet the overall impression is a bit shaky as they reinvent the film halfway in. Then, while the intentions are noble, it's difficult to side with the lead whose dubious and shadowy decision-making alienates despite Isaac's inviting performance. George tries to elevate the love triangle but this jars with the overpowering history of the environment, making it seem at odds.
While it has its struggles, George delivers some beautifully understated scenes and mines some heartbreaking and powerful moments. The talented trio give their all, despite the off-key casting of Christian Bale... and make it easier to simply accept the overarching story and plight of the characters. It's pleasing to see that sprawling epics like The Promise are still being made and while it lacks storytelling focus, the finesse of the visuals, score, history and performances make it admirable and important.
The bottom line: Evocative
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