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"THE PROMISE"
(2017) (Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A love triangle develops between a medical student, the tutor to his uncle's children, and her American reporter boyfriend, all as a campaign of genocide breaks out and worsens after Turkey enters WWI.
PLOT:
It's the mid-1910s and Mikael Pogosian (OSCAR ISAAC) is an apothecary in his small Armenian village and dreams of becoming a doctor, but doesn't have the money to pay for such schooling. Accordingly, he agrees to a dowry in exchange for marrying Maral (ANGELA SARAFYAN) upon his return from medical school in Constantinople. Once there, Mikael boards with his wealthy uncle, Mesrob (IGAL NAOR) and meets his young cousins' tutor, Ana (CHARLOTTE LE BON).

She's recently returned from Paris and is dating Chris Myers (CHRISTIAN BALE), an Associated Press reporter from America. He's growing concerned about anti-Armenian sentiment in the city, a worry shared by his friend, Emre (MARWAN KENZARI), who's going to med school with Mikael. When Turkey joins the war, Emre -- whose name carries weight since his father is a high-ranking military officer -- secures medical student deferments for both him and Mikael.

Even so, things go from bad to worse when Turkish military forces start removing Armenians from their towns and villages, stating that they're relocating them to safety when they're really beginning a wave of genocide. During this, Ana cheats on Chris by sleeping with Mikael, all of which creates an uneasy love triangle as Mikael returns to his hometown to check on his family and carries out his promise to marry Maral. From that point on, all do what they can to survive as the Armenian genocide worsens.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Let's face it, most people go to the movies to be entertained for a few hours, usually as a means of escapism from the stress of their daily lives and the troubling news of the day. That's why the biggest moneymakers in the movie business are superhero flicks, sci-fi pics, action-adventure films, straight-up comedies, and rom-coms.

Others seek out movies to view artsy offerings or to be enlightened by documentaries. While both of those can and occasionally do end up being sad or depressing offerings, I doubt many moviegoers head to the cinemas or stream movies solely to experience those sorts of emotions.

And thus films that are about or are related to things such as genocide are hard sells. Sure, some like "Schindler's List" can be breakout hits that become "must see" movies, and others like "Life is Beautiful" add lighthearted moments that entice curious moviegoers, which also holds true for true-life stories such as "Hotel Rwanda" when they're brought to the big screen.

Considering the general "downer" aura surrounding such dramas, however, anyone making such a film needs to be sure it either has a unique angle or is one of the best films of the year if there's to be any hope of recouping the production costs, especially if they're in the nine-figure range.

Unfortunately, "The Promise" doesn't deliver on either count and it's unlikely it's going to come close to making back its reported $100 million production budget. Part of that could stem from the fact that it's about a horrific part of history that few people have ever heard of and one in which the responsible country still refuses to accept was actual genocide.

And that's the systematic murder of more than one million Armenians by the Ottoman government during WWI. While most everyone knows at least something about the Holocaust in WWII, this deeply troubling event has pretty much been lost to history. Thus, I have to give kudos to all involved - writer/director Terry George, co-writer Robin Swicord and the cast and crew - for taking on a film about such a travesty and attempting to bring that to the attention of more people worldwide.

Unfortunately, and despite the horrors portrayed and the presence of performers such as Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, the film is mediocre at best. And that's mainly because the genocide aspect of the plot often ends up being nudged into the background of a fabricated love triangle story that, by itself or in conjunction with the rest of the material, simply isn't that interesting or compelling. In short, you never really root for either couple pairing to work out, and thus it sort of ends up feeling like a distraction, as well as a fabrication designed to soften the more troubling and depressing part of the film.

The plot revolves around an Armenian apothecary (Isaac) who wants to become a doctor but doesn't have the money for medical school. So, he accepts a dowry attached to a young woman (Angela Sarafyan) from his village and promises to marry her upon his return from Constantinople with his doctorate degree.

But while living with his uncle (Igal Naor) and that man's family, he meets his young nieces' tutor (Charlotte Le Bon) and finds himself falling for her despite her already being in a romantic relationship with an American reporter (Bale) who writes for the Associated Press and is concerned about the growing anti-Armenian sentiment in the country. And then Turkey enters WWI and in the guise of relocating Armenians to safer parts of the country, those in power begin with the genocide, all of which wraps up our three main characters and further complicates the love triangle.

Since so much focus in placed on that, I just wished it worked better than it does. While the production design is top-notch and the pic looks lush thanks to the lensing of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, the script doesn't do any of the cast members or their characters (and their interactions with others) any favors.

As a result, the film feels like it's doing nothing more than going through the motions, and it never engages the viewer as much as it should and probably could have. It ends up feeling a few hours longer than the 130-some minute runtime, and while it earns a few points for attempting to bring the Armenian genocide to light, I doubt many people will see it or that it will come anywhere close to earning back its production budget. "The Promise" rates as just a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed April 10, 2017 / Posted April 21, 2017


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