With Hotel Rwanda and now The Promise, Terry George is slowly but surely making his claim as the current cinematic specialist of dramatizing historic genocides.
As was the case with his Oscar-nominated Don Cheadle film, there’s a lot to like about George’s take on the Turks’ efforts to wipe out the Armenian people in the days leading up to WWI. First and foremost is the casting of another quality leading man, Oscar Isaac, as Mikael Boghosian, the apothecary of the small southern Turkish village of Siroun who seeks to earn his medical degree and return home to establish a clinic.
Betrothed to Maral (Angela Sarafyan, Clementine from HBO’s Westworld), Mikael is given a dowry by his future father-in-law to attend school in Constantinople and responds with the titular assurance that he shall indeed come back and seal the deal.
On Mikael's journey to the big city, George offers the first of many expansive scenic shots that highlight the region’s natural beauty, effects that green screen backdrops seeking to replicate early 20th-century Constantinople can’t come close to matching.
In the metropolis, Mikael lodges with a wealthy relative and his family, befriends playboy medical student Emre (Marwan Kenzari) and becomes enchanted with dancer/artist Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian and a tutor of sorts for the household’s children.
The young adults’ interactions and the wild card antics of Ana’s AP reporter boyfriend Chris Myers (Christian Bale) are generally engaging, but as signs of the Turks wanting to remove the “cancer” of the Armenians from their nation arise, the introductory phase soon gives way to a plodding pace as George and co-writer Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) struggle to incorporate the new complications.
Even with Emre’s best efforts to keep his pal from harm, Mikael is thrust by greater powers into a grueling work camp – a harsh and familiar stretch briefly alleviated by the odd yet welcome inclusion of Tom Hollander as an ethnic prisoner – but eventually escapes and starts making his way back to Siroun.
Offering little variety in its depictions of Armenians’ hardships, The Promise stumbles to its hour mark, making it nearly inconceivable to half-asleep viewers that another 60 minutes and change remain.
But while the glacial pacing and incompetent storytelling persist, glimpses of hope appear whenever George goes big. Working with a giant cast, scenes in which hundreds of refugees walk along roads are impressive moviemaking feats, as is the intricate production design of crowded bazaar scenes and the orchestration of rag-tag battles between Armenian rebels and the Turkish army.
Thankless (Jean Reno) and rather embarrassing (James Cromwell) 11th hour cameos from respectable actors do what they can to bring The Promise to a halt and the same goes for the poorly handled death of a central character in the climactic action set piece. To the filmmakers’ credit, however, they manage to close the story with class and provide a heartfelt tribute to Armenians as a whole before fading to black.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Jose Haro/Survival Pictures)