Like its stylistic first-cousin, the bio-pic, sweeping epics very often suffer from their inflated scope, attempting to condense an enormous amount of information and story down to a small, finite series of stilted and obligatory scenes in which every point is telegraphed, and every detail is in direct service to the sprawling plot.
In keeping with the genre's grand tradition, Terry George's The Promise, ostensibly about the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey in the early months of World War I, uses this horrific atrocity (still officially denied by the Turkish government) as a meaningful backdrop to an inept love triangle between an Armenian medical student, an American reporter for The Associated Press, and the beautiful artist whom they both desperately love. It's possible to make this work -- after all, Casablanca runs along a similar sort of premise -- but not when the film is in such a hurry to move on to the next scene that its rhythm becomes little more than a grinding of oil-deprived gears.
The medical student, Mikael, who also serves as narrator, is played by Oscar Isaac, with varying degrees of beard. Mikael is a humbly considerate man, very much wanting to leave his small mountain village to study medicine in Constantinople. To pay for his studies, he agrees to marry a sweet-faced village woman (Angela Sarafyan), whose father gives him a large enough dowry to complete his studies before returning home. Once in the city and staying with a well-to-do cousin, he meets the fetching Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an artist recently returned from a long stint in Paris. She brings with her the arrogant, American journalist Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), who is in the city to follow the machinations of the Turkish government as it cozies up to the Germans and plunges headlong into war.
As Mikael begins the assiduous task of falling in love with Ana, to Chris' furious consternation, the Turkish leaders enter into the war and immediately order the army to begin the systematic execution of the Armenian minority, rounding up the men, women and children of their villages and committing mass killings. Naturally, our trio of lovers gets caught up in the catastrophe. Mikael gets arrested and sent to a work camp in the mountains, building a railroad and suffering the cruel indignities of the Turkish guards. Chris and Ana grab as many of Mikael's cousins as they can and take refuge at a Christian church, planning to take a group of orphans to the coast where they can be sneaked out of the country by boat.
Many, many more things happen in the film, with Mikael eventually returning to his village and reuniting with his fiancee; Chris getting arrested and accused of spying; and everyone somehow coming back together just in time to try and save the orphans and surviving villagers who have escaped the Turkish death squads to make it safely out of the country. It's the kind of film where a complete plot synopsis would take almost as long as the film to explain. Running just over two hours, it feels at least twice as long.
It's also filled with odd decisions, from casting the Hispanic Isaac as an Armenian, to randomly switching film frame rates, from a classic, natural look, to something as chintzy and cheap as a telenovela in key scenes near the end. Everything serves as a distraction, from Bale's ridiculous-looking goatee wig, to the peculiar way Isaac runs distances, to the (actually endearingly) crooked teeth of Le Bon's smile.
Worse than any of its stylistic decisions, however, is to take something as horrific and criminally under-represented as the Armenian genocide and saddle it with a hokey love story that is virtually lifeless on its own. Naturally, the timeliness of the film -- taking us back to another age where virulent nationalism ran rampant, and minority groups were targeted as the subjects of its wrath -- is all too sickeningly relevant in the age of Brexit and Steve Bannon's type of exclusionist populism, but even there, the film either falters on the side of its overbaked plot, or sticks its more relevant political points in blithely didactic lurchings. ("This whole country is a graveyard," one character says.)
Notably, for a film that is obviously drawing a parallel to the inherent danger of xenophobia in our country, the only American presence on screen comes from the fearless Chris, and a fiercely honorable U.S. ambassador (James Cromwell), who refuses to let Turkey's corrupt leaders browbeat him, both of which suggest America, as the bastion of freedom, once again is on the right side of history. A little bit of sugar with the medicine, it would seem.
As much as the film's humanist politics can be appreciated, you simply cannot ignore the clumsiness of its approach and its ham-fisted way of making its point.
MovieStyle on 04/21/2017
Print Headline: The Promise