Tuesday 20 June 2017

Film Review: The Promise

A powerful and tragic part of history is undercut by syrupy melodrama in The Promise.

Set during the opening months of the First World War, The Promise sees a young apothecary (Oscar Isaac) from rural Armenia, in the southwest corner of the Ottoman Empire, journey to Constantinople to study medicine at the Imperial Medical Academy. 

It’s here he meets and falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an dance tutor, even though she is already in a relationship with an American journalist, Chris (Christian Bale), and Mikael is already promised to the daughter of an affluent man back in Armenia. However, as tensions begin to rise, Mikael and Ana’s Armenian background means the duo are threatened by discrimination, detention or worse, death.

The Armenian genocide, which stretched from 1915 to 1922, is a dark era of history not oft examined in cinema, in part because the present day Turkish government continues to deny the event ever took place. The systematic massacre of over 1.5 million Armenians under the pretence of ‘relocation’ during wartime, it’s this tragedy that forms the backdrop of The Promise, a sprawling saga that proves good intentions can only carry a film so far.

By shining a light on the plight of the Armenian people, The Promise certainly provokes conversation and emotion. It’s an eye-opening history lesson that succeeds in getting you choked up at times; the film works best when it isn’t afraid to steer into suffocatingly dark territory, like when Mikael stumbles across a train transporting hundreds of Armenians to a remote labour camp or a mass grave pouring blood into a woodland stream. 

When The Promise tackles its subject matter in the bluntest of terms, it hits you the hardest – a lot of which comes down to Isaac’s commendable lead performance and director Terry George’s staging of the aforementioned scenes. It succeeds in covering the shocking events with respect and grace without sacrificing their impact.

However, this film is by no means an unquestionable triumph. For every moment that tugs at your heartstrings, there are two others that cause you grind your teeth or fidget with annoyance. 

It tries to cover so much ground in its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime that it feels like someone accidentally sat on the fast-forward button; important character moments glide by too hastily, dulling the resonance of the central conflict.

Too often George pulls away from the important narrative beats to focus once again on the melodramatic love triangle. It feels like he was aiming to replicate the sweeping historical epics of yesteryear, albeit without the arse-aching runtime of something like Lawrence of Arabia. Nowadays, we can usually find that kind of stuff on TV – if the BBC or HBO adapted The Promise, it would be a six-part miniseries and infinitely better as a result. 

The Verdict: 6/10

With more room to gestate, The Promise could have been something special. Instead, it’s a fairly generic period piece that spends too much time on the saccharine romance and not enough time playing to its strengths. Granted, everyone is giving it their best and their hearts are in the right place – but that goodwill only stretches so far.

The Promise is in cinemas across Australia now.

This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.


  1. I liked the cast but this looked kind of meh. I'll probably watch it if it comes on TV.

    1. Some part are undeniably impactful but TV is probably the best option.

  2. The IMDB drama around this sounds more intresting than the film itself. I always found a little iffy to make a love story the central point of a film about a geoncide but I am glad to read that the film mostly does it without sacrificing the impact.

    1. It would have been even more impactful had it not focused so heavily on the romance though, especially when "the promise" only forms maybe the first half of the runtime.



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