All words: Alan Pyke
The Promise was a flamewar before you had the option to see it.
At its initial limited rollout in festivals last year, the Turkish government let loose a troll army to bury it with one-star reviews. Some sites pointed out that there were more people panning the film than there were people who could have possibly seen it. It’s a tough spot to be in, especially when the film wanted to “Schindler’s List, but for Armenians.”
Often when a film becomes a propaganda battleground, the artists involved get upset. The weight of ideological priors has crushed their creation, and the bile of the comments section is digesting the rubble. A project designed with careful and specific intentions becomes generalized, drawn and quartered to fit an tertiary argument.
The team behind The Promise can claim no such indignation. Their goal is to reclaim a set of historical facts from an abyss of denial and misinformation created by one of the 20 largest countries in the world. This was always going to be a war, in astroturf online reviews and personal conversations alike.
Turkey’s absolute denial of the Armenian genocide was always going to crush the oxygen out of this piece of art on the back end. But unfortunately for people eager to see someone crack that wall of lies, the writers and cinematographers of The Promise seem to have preemptively sucked the grace, fluidity, and narrative richness out of their story. It is a sort of masochistic anticipation of the post-release fight.
I specify “writers and cinematographers” because other members of the creative team here deserve accolades. The fleeting moments when The Promise works are a credit to the strong work of costumer Pierre-Yves Gayraud and the set-dressing team. Christian Bale makes the best of some relentlessly poor dialogue as an American reporter named Chris – on assignment to document the Ottoman Empire’s bloody dissolve. Oscar Isaac’s lead turn as an Armenian would-be doctor named Michael deserves credit, though it’s tough to unearth a fair appraisal from the rocky-at-best accent choice.
For every good moment of writing – Chris murmuring derisively that “women talk” while gossiping with another man, for example – there are seven clunkers sandbagging the ensemble. Bale’s journalist feels the need to wax briefly poetic about the tragedy of the slaughter to a priest who has been closer to it for longer, a line so obviously addressed to the audience that he might as well wink at the camera.
But again, the whole point here is to generate a basic summary of a long-denied act of extermination. If writer-director Terry George set out to make something 7th-grade history teachers can show their classes to spread the word of the Armenian genocide, he’s succeeded. Save for a moment when Michael takes a deep, unprompted huff of au pair Ana’s (Charlotte Le Bon) crotch after the two narrowly escape a race riot – teachers might want to fast-forward – the story is so easily digestible and artlessly told that it feels like educational material.
Le Bon deserves her own paragraph: She does excellent work in a maddeningly constrained character, and comes closest of anyone to walking away with a praise-worthy performance. She is tremulous, wholly virtuous, thinking only of others, an embodiment of determined innocence/bravery who teaches terrified Armenian child refugees to sing the Alouette. Those are flat character traits, archetypes more hidebound than a 1914 corset. But they are what she was given, and she maneuvers them well.
Still, this whole thing is bound to collapse under its own mistaken narrative configuration. This is supposed to be about a genocide, yet feels like a Drake song. The flaccid love triangle between Le Bon, Bale, and Isaac is tepid, and nearly overshadows the historical material that is the whole damn point.
Bad writing is no head-shot to the pedagogical historical epic. But add in George’s horrendous visual storytelling style, and The Promise quickly has no escape from its tawdry text. The choice of digital video over film gives things a soap-opera feel throughout, dissolving the dusty and mournful aesthetic the filmmaking team is hops to conjure. If you’re going to use a crappy camera, at least find interesting ways to point it at your story. George doesn’t bother. The unimaginative, bland cinematography only reinforces the bad-television feel of the thing.
I take no pleasure in writing a pan of a historically valuable film that means to undo a still-going injustice, and smash an increasingly tyrannical leader of a country that murdered millions and won’t own up to it. Nobody wants a movie like this to be bad, except the Turks I suppose.
The best I can say: Yes, it is bad, but people should still see it.