Sometimes the best of intentions can only get you so far. The Promise tries too hard to generate genuine emotion out of history rather than the dynamic between characters and it ends up as a flat and lifeless affair that looks very pretty but we ultimately don’t give a damn about.
The year is 1914 and the world is on edge as the Great War is looming and the Ottoman Empire is on the brink of crumbling. The city of Constantinople which was a vibrant and multicultural centre on the shores of the Bosporus and it is on the brink of being consumed by total chaos. Michael (Oscar Isaac) arrives in the cosmopolitan hub as a medical student determined to bring modern medicine back to Siroun, his ancestral village in Southern Turkey where Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians have lived side by side for as long as anyone can remember. Meanwhile Photo-journalist Chris Myers (Christian Bale), has come here only partly to cover geo-politics, he is also mesmerized by his love for Ana (Charlotte le Bon), an Armenian artist he has accompanied from Paris after the sudden death of her father. Sparks fly when Michael meets Ana, their shared Armenian heritage sparks an attraction that explodes into a romantic rivalry between the two men. As the Turks form an alliance with Germany and the Empire turns violently against its own ethnic minorities, their conflicting passions must be deferred while they join forces to survive even as events threaten to overwhelm them.
With what could only be described as minimal character development, The Promise relays far too much on the drama of history instead of effective storytelling and character development to give us a love triangle that honest to goodness never really goes anywhere.
Co-Writer and Director Terry George does have some pedigree in his back catalog but he leans on it far too much this time out. The pomp, circumstance and scale of the time certainly comes across and it feels big, but the narrative is weak. While it looks and feels like a war movie, it relies on style and the historical events to generate chemistry between the characters and it fails miserably. It’s underwritten and emotionally thin as we see these characters in this vibrant and dynamic city but the writing fails them along the way. It’s like we have people who are just supposed to fall in love and engage with each other because of what is happening around them. None of them are all that interesting and feel like they are going through the motions. In a love story we have to at least be engaged with the people involved and we never are. George sacrifices character for style and it goes absolutely nowhere. There wasn’t even an attempt to focus on this tragic piece of history and the love story is so flimsy in its construction, we marvel at the fact that it tries to keep up the pretense of it all for the films 132 min run time.
With its myriad of problems, this one certainly doesn’t rest on the cast. Both Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac work their respective asses off to turn this dull affair into something we’ll even remotely give a shit about the material is just on the page. Bale gives up half way through as he goes from angry and arrogant to just bored and functionally disinterested while Isaac looks like he is going to have an aneurism trying to turn nothing into something. Charlotte Le Bon as the love interest is pretty but wooden and the ensemble just doesn’t get a lot to work with. People can make the argument that there should have been more Armenian and Turkish actors throughout this story but the reality is that it is such a flat attempt at making this into anything worth watching.
Ultimately, this slice of history deserved better because The Promise is just a flat affair that wants the drama of war time to create heat in a love story that never takes off. Pretty much everyone involved in this picture deserved better.