He meets a beautiful young teacher (Charlotte Le Bon) who is in a relationship with a world renowned American reporter (Christian Bale) and they fall in love following several encounters. When the war reaches Turkey the city is beset by the Ottoman military and all Armenian leaders and intellectuals are rounded up and deported. It isn't long before the Turks launch a ruthless campaign to systemically exterminate the Armenian people.
We watch the whole barbaric atrocity unfold through the eyes of our three protagonists as they desperately fight for survival. Their ordeal sees them suffer incredible losses - as well as capture and escape - as their friends and loved ones are slaughtered before their eyes. It is a harrowing cinematic experience to say the least and it depicts the horrors of genocide in a similarly shocking way to HOTEL RWANDA. With an unflinching focus it is immediately clear that director terry George feels deeply about documenting these crimes of the past and in doing so he contributes to the ever-important annals of history, lest we forget. And with that in mind it is regrettable that he has chosen to follow three entirely fictitious characters.
Perhaps it was a case of not being able to pin-point any particular accounts of survival to warrant a feature-length film (I find that hard to believe) or maybe George felt compelled to heighten the drama with a narrative that he could manipulate... whatever the case might be, I found their personal plight distracting from the greater historical context, and felt cheated by the contrived love story that wove its way throughout the events. The love triangle, as presented, took me back to the schmultzy melodrama of THE ENGLISH PATIENT and impeded what was an otherwise superb piece of filmmaking.
What did resonate with me was the impressive production design and incredible cinematography. With stunning panoramic shots of the setting sun over dune-swept deserts and breathtaking mountainous terrains, the look of the film is epic in its scope and awe-inspiring in its presentation. The tone of the film transitions eloquently from the paradisal urban sprawl of pre-war Turkey to a War ravished hell paved with corpses. The juxtaposition between peace and disharmony is jarring and the film presents us with a confronting moment in history that has, until now, remained relatively undocumented in mainstream film. In terms of documenting an atrocity Terry George has essentially done for the Armenian genocide what Spielberg did for the Jewish holocaust in SCHINDLER'S LIST.
The cast is impressive with Isaac and Bale giving particularly strong turns. Bale is the stronger of the two, although ever so slightly, as he conjures a surly and external performance. His character witnesses the war from a foreign perspective, desperate to inform the outside world of what's happening, whereas Isaac's character falls victim to the hell that's been inflicted upon his people. He endures the barbarity and endures a much more personal character arc. They spend much of the screen time apart and both command their scenes with unwavering strength, and when their paths do cross they share a brilliant and mesmerising dynamic. Le Bon's presence is less convincing with a sense that she is out of her depth, and while she is not “bad” by any means, her character might have been far more engaging if cast differently. A few other notable names cameo throughout the film and help elevate its overall impact above the unfortunate love story.
When it comes to depicting historical atrocities filmmakers have a responsibility to be be honest, and to capture stories as earnestly as possible. Canadian director Atom Egoyan previously explored the Armenian genocide in his 2002 film ARARAT, although he did so from a contemporary and retrospective point of view, and so THE PROMISE is a missed opportunity to truly recapture an important moment in time without fabrication. As a technical achievement THE PROMISE is excellent. As a performance piece is it outstanding. And as a depiction of war it is powerful... but with its unnecessarily contrived melodrama accompanied by needless bookended narration it doesn't quite hit the mark the way films like HOTEL RWANDA, SALVADOR or THE KILLING FIELDS did. And so to summarise THE PROMISE is a very good film, but it could have been a great one!