The Promise review: Oscar Isaac gains leading man status in this extensive historical epic set at the end of the First World War when Turkey executed over 1.5 million Armenians.

The Promise review by Paul Heath, Toronto International Film Festival 2016.

The Promise review
The Promise review

The film opens with a truly eye-opening and terrifying title card – one that states that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turkish during World War I. I was aware of the terrible genocide that occurred during the war, but my sheer ignorance wasn’t aware of its horrific scale.

Terry George directs this epic, ambitious depiction of this horrific mass genocide from one hundred or so years ago. Set in Turkey, the film follows medical student Michael (Oscar Isaac), a brilliant young man who takes the firm decision to settle down with a local girl (Angela Sarafyan) to secure his position at a prestigious school in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He doesn’t really love her, but that doesn’t stop his dream so pledges his affection and the promise to marry the young girl once he has completed his exams (it’ll take three years, but Michael claims that he can probably do it in two). He leaves town for the Imperial Medical School where he stays with his uncle Mestrob (Igal Naor). At Mestrob’s impressive river-side home, Michael meets his attractive daughter Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an artist who is in a slightly wobbly relationship with Associated Press journalist Chris (Christian Bale). Nature takes its course and soon Michael and Ana are having a secret affair whilst Chris is out of town investigating a story. Chris embarks on something quite big, and witnesses first hand that Armenians are being rounded up and killed. The tensions soon hit Constantinople and Ana and Michael who are soon holed up in a local hotel. Michael is soon discovered and thrown into prison and then slave labour while Ana returns to Chris to aid other family members during the troubles. When Michael escapes, he must doe everything he can to survive, and make personal choices for the greater good as the genocide increasingly intensifies.

Terry George directed a similarly-themed genocide picture named Hotel Rwanda 12 years ago – a truly intense drama that was not only difficult to watch, but one that really well-received – a multiple award-nominee, including an Oscar-nod for Best Original Screenplay for George and co-writer Keir Pearson. Here he teams with Little Women, Memoirs Of A Geisha and The Jane Austin Book Club scribe Robin Swicord for a really quite involving piece that certainly does not deserve all of the negative criticism from fans who haven’t even seen the film. Sure, the film plods in places, but there’s a lot to pick out positively in this ambitious, necessary epic that is really rather huge in scale.

The Promise review
The Promise review

While the film struggles during its opening scenes, notably in the way it looks when Isaac’s Michael arrives in Constantinople – the harshly-lit riverside scenes where he meets Charlotte Le Bon’s character for the first time look are shockingly bad in terms of CGI – things do improve really rather quickly. Javier Aguirresarobe‘s (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Road) cinematography is actually really rather impressive during the battle scenes later on, and those in the quarry where Michael eventually makes his great escape.

The film, broken down, is actually a romance at heart – a love triangle with a woman caught between our two leading men. I actually cared for all three characters in this, and the three actors portraying the characters are all pretty decent; the stand-out definitely Isaac in a proper leading role – he carries the entire movie. There’s also some superb, support from the likes of Marwan Kenzari, the good-hearted fellow student Emre, a true friend of Michael, the always solid Rade Serbedzija and particularly Shoreh Aghdashloo as Michael’s mother.

While engaging the three central characters are, one can’t help but be more interested in the horror that is going on around them. – let’s face it – there hasn’t been an accurate depiction of this horrific event in history – not a good one anyway. Unlike Hotel Rwanda, we don’t quite feel just how horrific this time was – save from an ill-judged sequence nearing the end, which while moving, is nowhere near as impactful of George’s past masterpiece.

My sentiments were secured in a wholly unnecessary final 15 minutes where the film almost goes full-on Titanic/ Pearl Harbor, its over sentimentality drawing the viewer away from what really should be relevant. We could have also done without the many extended cameos dotted throughout – another unwelcome distraction.

When a film’s final title card provokes more emotion than the 120 minutes or so that preceded it, we’re in a little trouble, but I did not hate the film at all. It is largely enthralling, involving, and very watchable – largely down to Isaac’s excellent work in the lead, and even Le Bon’s impressive turn too. Their commanding presence and instant likeability instantly elevates the film to an altogether different level, which just about saves things.

While not a masterpiece, it’s well worth your time.

The Promise review by Paul Heath, TIFF ’16.

The Promise is awaiting both a UK and North American release date.