It’s been over a decade since director Terry George had a big hit with the three-time Oscar nominated “Hotel Rwanda,” and his career ever since has been in a steady downward tumble, culminating in his last feature film, 2011’s “Whole Lotta Sole” starring Brendan Fraser which almost nobody saw. So, the filmmaker has returned to war torn territory with “The Promise,” bringing with him some very big talent and subject matter – the Armenian Genocide – and that hasn’t been tackled very often at the movies. But where “Hotel Rwanda” was formulaic yet affecting, “The Promise” finds George losing his touch completely, delivering a war movie that’s high on soap opera, acting more as history lesson than as a drama in which two men learn through the tragedy of war that they can both love the same woman. Didactic yet generic, “The Promise” endeavors to educate about a period of recent history that is still unacknowledged by the Turkish government, but curiously manages to be anonymous in form nonetheless.
Before things get ugly, we’re taken into the family pharmacy business run by Michael’s (Oscar Isaac) father, who shares that he serves any customer, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, immediately setting the tone for a movie which leaves no teachable moment unturned. The young man is proud of his heritage and looks to expand upon the family legacy by traveling to Constantinople to train to become a doctor. He gets the money for his education by becoming engaged to a local girl, and uses the dowry paid by her father to help fund his three years of study. In the Turkish city, Michael quickly befriends Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an American reporter for the Associated Press, and his Armenian girlfriend, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon). Despite being betrothed, Michael battles Chris for the woman’s heart, and this will carry on throughout the movie, even as everyone becomes thrust into a fight for their very lives when Turkey begins their ruthless aggression against the Armenians. It’s a story-line that never quite gels with the main thread, and it’s hard to take seriously when, following an attack in the streets of Constantinople, that same evening Michael and Ana have a one night stand.
What follows isn’t so much a plot, as a string of loosely connected scenes and familiar imagery that has been employed to far more potent effect in similar movies. The cattle car filled with terrified men, women and children; stacks of slaughtered bodies; slave laborers worked to death; military officials coldly rationalizing what they’re doing — it’s all here, but lacking the true sense of horror that other films and filmmakers have managed to convey when working in similar territory. And particularly as “The Promise” moves into its second and third acts, the narrative turns episodic, with the drama continually undone by cheap plotting. For example, at one point Michael finds himself captured by Turkish forces, and forced to work building a railroad. One night when chatting with some of the other men, one of them reveals that he used to be a clown, does a little routine, and laments rather cornily, “I used to make the children laugh.” Barely a few minutes later, the character is dead. And throughout “The Promise,” co-writers Terry George and Robin Swicord (who also has “Wakefield” playing TIFF — review here) employ this sort of cause-followed-by-immediate-effect structure, and it works against them – because once the formula is established, it robs “The Promise” of any dramatic tension, and leaves many of the story’s developments wholly predictable, if not plainly telegraphed.
This sort of generic storytelling approach gets no help either from the usually reliable cinematographer Javier Aguirresrobe (“The Road,” “The Others,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) who does some of the worst work we’ve ever seen from the lenser. “The Promise” isn’t just visually unappealing, it’s garishly bright, with what I can only assume is the film’s digital photography making many sets appear completely artificial. It’s as if the actors are walking around a soap opera stage. The cast is also left to contend with an on the nose script, and what I can only assume wasn’t the best direction; I can’t recall the last time Christian Bale — bearded and shouty, and forced to repeatedly say his character’s name and profession with each new person that crosses his path — was this forgettable and uninspired in a performance. Oscar Isaac fares slightly better in the film’s leading role, but even he has to navigate truly rocky dialogue in which every story development and every emotional beat gets ploddingly explained in never-ending, thunderously dull conversations. Both Isaac and Bale, who can be terrific on screen without saying a word, are rarely given the content, opportunity, or trust from George to react to what’s happening around them. They can’t find the space to let a moment breathe.
Terry George is clearly and rightly outraged by the history he explores in “The Promise,” but the filmmaker underestimates the audience by simply playing that one note. The gravity of the Armenian Genocide can’t just be explained to viewers, they need to experience that loss and terror, and great cinema allows moviegoers to find their own connection to the past, forming empathy by bearing witness. It’s a quality the medium’s best war movies contain, but it’s an element “The Promise” sorely misses. With the film’s insistent self-importance, and hand-holding narrative, it undercuts the necessary contemplation of the millions of lives lost. [D]
This review is a reprint that originally ran during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival