It’s easy to allow the political reality of our present to inform our reading of a new film, as if to suggest that the countless days that lead into months that lead into years in which a film is in pre- and post-production lead to some carefully calibrated zeitgeist moment. Those moments aren’t so conveniently arranged. For a film like Terry George’s The Promise, a film that depicts the systematic genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire, it’s difficult not to be persuaded by the picture’s heartfelt call for humanism, all during a political present that makes the very concept unfashionable.
Set during the backdrop of the start of World War I, The Promise centers on Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian medical student temporarily residing in Constantinople as he leaves behind his business, wife, and family. He vows to return, though quickly becomes entangled in a relationship with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and her American reporter husband Chris (Christian Bale). All this as war breaks loose and Ottoman forces begin to round up Armenians, first dispatching them to labor camps and then for brutal death marches. It comes with fair warning that the picture’s melodramatic intentions are permanent fixtures within the horrifying historical framework – which is to say that George, for better or worse, will maintain an old-fashioned Doctor Zhivago-esque commitment to this romance even as it undercuts the picture’s intentions.
And so, The Promise is, by most every metric, old-fashioned and derivative. It will often suggest something more ambitious but succumb to its narrative obligations and broad didactic gestures. It pays lip service to actual suffering and clearly displays the jagged editing scars of something much more uncompromising. But. But. I still admired it. It stems from my appreciation of its actors who submit persuasive, kinetic performances. And what can I say? The didactic gestures won me over. This is a film that sees Christian Bale’s character, an Associated Press reporter, express the importance of the press to violent oppressors and actually mean it. It’s a film that speaks of hope without a sense of cynicism or irony. Where refugees still speak of a future as an obtainable reality, even as they’re constantly threatened with misfortune upon misfortune. In a petrifying political reality that would only bring misfortune, making you involuntarily aware of every cardiopulmonary move, it’s a film as naively humanistic as The Promise that functions as some sort of miracle tonic of our time. As it were, it may not be the film we all want, but it’s one we certainly need in the here and now.