The Promise is made in earnest, even if it cannot honour all of its commitments.
The Armenian Genocide remains one of the most horrifying atrocities of the twentieth century, which is saying something. The horror of that systematic extermination is compounded by a refusal to acknowledge the violence committed by the Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey refuses to acknowledge, or take responsibility, for those crimes. Political realities prevent other major powers from holding the government to account. It is a shameful situation, all around.
The Promise is made with the intent of shedding some light on that atrocity and bringing it to international attention. It is clearly a passion project, made with the best intentions. The film undoubtedly captures the horror of the violence inflicted upon the Armenian Christians and the systemic nature of the attempt to wipe out an entire civilisation. There are points at which The Promise plays as a travelogue into terror, a sequence of harrowing images set against a journey across Turkey during the First World War.
However, The Promise is also very much modeled on an old-school Hollywood adventure movie, complete with daring stunt work and tangled romantic subplots. The Promise evokes the feel of “classic” Hollywood, with its broad themes and its impressive scale. This sleek approach to the material jars with the horror being inflicted, the movie’s character arcs pasted over a nightmarish true story just a little too smoothly. The Promise is well-intentioned, if clumsy in execution.
There are moments in The Promise that work beautifully, that underscore the brutality inflicted upon the Armenian Christians by their neighbours and by their government. At one point in the film, our hero escapes from a work camp and finds shelter atop a train. He falls asleep, only to wake as the rain splashes down. It is not the rain that wakes him, it is the groaning of the human chattel forced into the carriage below him. The image should be familiar to any student of history, but director Terry George captures it beautifully. Humans reduced to livestock, to cargo.
The Promise works best in these moments, when the dialogue is turned down and the characters are asked simply to process the scale of what is happening. Every time that it seems like Armenian medical student Mikael or American journalist Chris has plumbed the cold depths of humanity’s capacity for depravity, The Promise plunges lower still. The groaning carriage at the back of the train, the burning village populated with hanging bodies, an entire community dumped in the river as if the sin might be washed away.
It is important to remember these moments, which is a recurring theme of The Promise. Records need to be preserved. Photos need to taken. Articles need to be written. These atrocities must not be forgotten, because forgetting them merely enables those who would repeat them. The Promise unfolds through two sets of eyes, through the local character of Mikael and through the Associated Press journalist Chris Myers. The film is conscious of Myers’ importance, even during the extended periods where he does little to drive the plot.
However, The Promise is not content to simply observe the horrors. It does not allow its characters to stand idle. This is a commendable creative decision, but the issue is in what the film elects have Mikael and Chris actually do. The Promise has a very sweeping and old school aesthetic to it. The film looks particularly impressive in establishing shots of boats and trains, creating a sense of sweeping movement and forward momentum. However, this old-school Hollywood is more than just an affectation. The Promises writes its characters like adventurers from thirties serials.
Mikael and Chris find themselves entangled in a love triangle with Ana. Meanwhile, Mikael finds himself trapped between his love for Ana and the promise he made to marry Maral on his return home. This romance set against the back drop of adventure. Mikael and Ana’s forbidden love blossoms when they seek shelter together as violence breaks out. Mikael embarks upon an epic prison escape in order to get back home, even jumping on to the back of a train. There is a thrilling sequence where he ducks as he goes through a tunnel, straight from an Indiana Jones film.
It is easy to understand why these elements were added. To a certain extent, it feels like the production team behind The Promise realised that they had an important story to tell and designed the rest of the movie to hammer home that message. The Promise is a vitally important movie about a very urgent subject, but the delivery mechanism that has been chosen is an epic old-school Hollywood period melodrama. To be fair, the melodrama seems like it would work quite well on its own terms. However, it does not exist on its own terms.
This is the central tension of The Promise, and a problem from which the film cannot escape. There is a disjointed quality to the action, a tonal dissonance to the adventure through a holocaust. When Mikael does his thrilling stunt work on the side of a train, it makes a for a jarring juxtaposition with the people trapped inside the train. When Mikael and Ana give into their passions in a small hotel room, it is disconcerting to see that old Hollywood cliché played out against what is clearly the beginning of a genocide.
It is strange to see two separate (but very conventional) love triangles conveniently resolved by the horrors of a real-life plot to exterminate an entire people. The Promise is earnest enough and sincere enough that this never feels cynical, even if the contrast remains jarring. The Promise is populated by actors who genuinely seem invested in the material and in the story that they are telling, but the attempts to consciously evoke a retro Hollywood period melodrama feel ill-judged.
The Promise is a worthy film, and one that clearly comes from the right mindset. It is a film that clearly hopes to do right by a people who were almost wiped off the face of the planet. However, the film just feels too smooth and too stylish, its character arcs at odds with the brutal that it seeks to convey. This is one promise that cannot be kept.