It is neither fast nor furious, so why is a stodgy, old-school historical epic like “The Promise” opening wide?
Mostly because a billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, willed it. Kerkorian, the son of Armenian immigrants, amassed a fortune by buying and selling companies. Before he died at 98 in 2015, he financed this film to dramatize history.
That history is the slaughter of more than a million Armenians at the hands of Turks during World War I. Turkey still won’t acknowledge the event as genocide, and some of Turkey’s allies, such as the United States, are shy about using the G word themselves, for fear of offending a strategic partner.
“The Promise” may well raise public awareness of the Armenian genocide; movies have always had power to spread ideas. Considering the recent behavior of Turkey’s current president, don’t look in that direction for a reversal of opinion.
An issue movie needs a story. And “The Promise” opts for the safest possible premise: a good old tragic romantic triangle, with a heaping of “Casablanca” and a dollop of “Doctor Zhivago” sauce on top.
We follow the travails of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student sampling the big city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). He has left behind an arranged fiance (Angela Sarafyan) in his small town, but hopelessly falls for a sophisticate, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), while pursuing his studies.
Ana is romantically involved with an American newspaper reporter, Chris (Christian Bale). They all get swept up in the outbreak of war, as the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire brutally crack down on the Armenian population.
There’s a great deal of separating and reuniting and fleeing the war zone. Give screenwriters Robin Swicord and Terry George (he also directed) credit for giving this film a genuinely epic reach.
The characters are all thinly-sketched stereotypes, but with Isaac and Bale around to provide ballast, at least there’s some decent acting going on. Look for Dutch-born Marwan Kenzari as a future star; his role as a Turkish son of privilege who nobly rises to the occasion is a real charisma-burner.
Director George began his career making politically-charged features in his native Northern Ireland, and later did the compelling “Hotel Rwanda.” That “The Promise” carries some juice is probably due to his committed style.
In short, this movie could have been worse. That’s not much of a rave, but given that so many historical epics are like visits to a wax museum, I was grateful this one had a pulse.
“The Promise” (2 1/2 stars)
An old-school historical epic, with Armenian medical student Oscar Isaac torn between women and friends during World War I; Christian Bale plays a journalist trying to expose the slaughter of Armenians at the hands of Turks. The characters are thin and the story formulaic, but the film has some juice from its political outrage.
Rating: PG-13 for violence, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Seven Gables, Cascade Mall