The thirty-eight year old Guatemalan-American actor, Oscar Isaac, can not do much wrong in this reviewer’s eyes. The camera loves him, too. But the one scene in “The Promise” that will stay with every viewer is the tear rolling down the cheek of that dark-eyed and heavily browed face of his. His face can master any emotion, and staring in the first American film to be made about the 1915 Armenian genocide gives that face full play.
Filmed like the 1960’s epic ” Dr. Zivago”, he is our Omar Sharif, but with more conscience and a sweeter, cerebral passion. As Mikael Boghosian, a Turkish-Armenian apothecary, Isaac ‘s emotive eyes glint with medical ambition. He promises to marry a sweet village girl for a dowery of 400 gold coins. He will then have the funds to travel to Constantinople and study at The Imperical. His fiancée, Maral ( Angela Sarafyan ) and he will come to love each other.
Once we find Mikael in Constantinople at his uncle’s villa and see his visceral response to the worldly Algerian, Ana ( Charlotte Le Bon ), who teaches his young cousins dance and Parisian songs, we are ready for another love triangle, commensurate with the one in ” The Ottoman’s Lieutenant” ( reviewed here March 14, 2017 ). This Turkish funded film does not address the genocide of the Armenians, while ” The Promise” angerly asserts the inhumanity of Talaat Pasha, the Turkish minister. The grand visier of the Ottoman Empire is a war criminal in this film.
The cinematography of Javier Aquirresrobe with its unique manipulation of light from the close-ups of an emerald green money pouch to the reeds near a stream will enthrall. Narrow paths, donkey rides, and beautiful vistas are a respite from the scenes of carnage. His balanced eye and romantic flare serve ” The Promise” well. His overhead shots are amazingly beautiful.
One of the most harrowing scenes is Mikael’s escape on the roof of train cars carrying Armenian villagers to be exterminated. The Holocaust analogy is clearly made.
Director Terry George does equally well with a rather poor script. The dialogue oft seems out of era, for example, Ana’s ” I need to sort things out with Chris. ” Or Maral ‘s father’s ” After the wedding, you will head for the hills…” Likewise, Christian Bales seems a tad out of place as the American journalist. He does well with adventuresome and abrasive, but not so well with wooden dialogue like, ” I wish to go with the orphans to record this for prosperity.”
Secondary actors make a strong presence in ” The Promise”. Aaron Neil is a villainous Pasha; Marwan Kenzari, a friend for all ages. Shohreh Aghdashloo is moving and almost biblical as Mikael’s mother, Marta. Firelight confessions, vengeful thoughts, true friendship and shared loves all converge.
The beautiful score by Gabriel Yared merges with actual 1915 photos to pummel the viewers with epic emphasis. “There are no words”, only echoes.
Viewers will not forget Oscar Isaac’s horrendous grief scenes. Nor will they forget the lies. ” There is no war here. Merely, a reassignment to a safer region.” Even, the vizier’s blatant grab at his victim’s insurance money ring of modern evils. “The Promise” is a belated toast to Armenian survival at a little over two hours.