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The Promise poster

“Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?”
– Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

As a storyteller myself – particularly, as a writer – there are a great many topics on which I’d like to speak in-depth at any given moment. I know that technology and my artistic connection not only give me a forum with which to speak, but that my need to constantly refine those skills gives me the ability to better articulate my thoughts than the average Twitter troll who makes cowardly, asinine statements from his/her anonymous corner of the Internet. Or from his chair in the Oval Office.

But a refined orator or scribe can easily fall into the same trap as the anonymous troll: the belief that their having brought up an important topic means they’ve made an important contribution to the discussion of said topic. It’s why “armchair activism” has gained such prominence in the past decade-or-so. Did you march for a cause, contact your local representative, or make any move that would attempt to bring about real change for what you believe? No? You just changed your FB avatar? Slow clap for, oh bold one.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I remember when Spike Lee’s Bamboozled was released and everyone praised him for bringing up the idea of minstrelsy in then-contemporary Black entertainment. Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder infamously took the film to task for barely addressing its supposed topic, and then doing a poor job of it. When supporters of the film tried to argue that covering the topic was a bold step, MacGruder countered: “I said he didn’t cover it well. I’m tired of giving people points for effort. A bad movie is a bad movie – regardless of intentions. It’s like those folks who think any hip-hop record that doesn’t talk about ice and money and bitches is a classic. It’s not. You still have to execute your craft well.”

The Promise is a film the addresses an important time in history by actively trying to dumb-down as much of the story as possible.

During what-would-be the final days of the Ottoman Empire, a young Armenian apothecary name Mikael (Oscar Isaac) wishes to travel to Constantinople to become a doctor. His education is paid for as a dowry by the father of the woman to whom he’s betrothed. Upon arriving, he falls in love with both the cosmopolitan city, and Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), the dance instructor of his uncle’s children. This, of course, complicates matters between Ana and her American boyfriend, AP reporter Chris (Christian Bale).

As the Ottomans begin rounding up and imprisoning Armenians, Mikael is captured. While Chris attempts to tell the world of the atrocities he witnesses, he harbors a lingering jealously for the budding romance that was developing between Ana and Mikael. A romance that may yet be rekindled.

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As I watched this film, a term kept running through my head. It’s not usually used flatteringly, but it was the only one that appropriately summed up the problems with the picture: “made-for-tv movie”. The Promise is so weighed down by overly expository dialogue and overwrought melodrama that one half expects each scene to end with an organ stinger before cutting away to advertising. I’ll grant you, the performances are (mostly) good enough to keep the characters interesting, but the words coming out of their mouths are often cringe-inducing. I’m not overly familiar with Terry George’s filmography, but the above is also what hindered his historical (melo)drama Hotel Rwanda.

And the technical aspects of the film don’t do it any favors either. Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography will often shift from rudimentary to mediocre, particularly in the night scenes, which look as if they were shot on cheap, consumer-grade cameras at a very video-esque frame rate. If Michael Mann can’t pull off that stupid look, neither can the crew working here. Then there’s the editing by Steven Rosenblum. This is a two-fold problem: the first part is that film is edited in such a way that it’s clear longer conversations and sequences were cut down to keep the film as close to two hours as possible (a scene where Ana and Mikael are sitting and then suddenly appear on the street is a particularly egregious example). A longer cut might not make much difference, but I imagine it would give certain plot points more “room to breathe”. The second part is the fact Rosenblum doesn’t seem to know how to cut together action scenes, so when shooting starts, it can be hard to tell what’s happening.

As with the writing, any genuinely moving moments seem to occur in spite of the film-makers’ work, not as a result of it. Centering the story around a limp romantic triangle (one that ends in a pretty sexist way) is not a strength. Putting faces to the other victims of the violence is.

The Promise isn’t the worst film to take on history in this way, but it will never be considered the best. I understand why the film has recently become important to Armenians, who finally have a dramatisation of this oft-overlooked story. (Even the United States’ most famous Armenian descendants – who get far too much undue hate – attended the premiere.) But that’s the thing: it is an important story; that’s why it deserves better than this. Hopefully the next telling will be done with more skill and care than shown here.

The Promise is no Doctor Zhivago, but I can only praise to the extent that it isn’t Pearl Harbor.

GRADE:                C-