“The Promise” is a film of startling authority and ravishing power. It has all the elements of classic epic: a sweeping historical backdrop with a very intimate human story at the center. It’s one of those rare fiction movies that has the weight of truth behind it.
Oscar Isaac, recalling a young Omar Sharif in looks and screen presence, plays an Armenian medical student who is caught up in the Armenian Genocide during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. To this day its successor nation, Turkey, refuses to acknowledge the systematic murder of 1.5 million children, women and men.
Not apologize or make reparations — just say that it happened.
If the film harbors a reservoir of rage about this at its core, then director Terry George, who co-wrote the script with Robin Swicord, takes great pains to conceal it. Instead, the focus is on the love triangle at the center, with Christian Bale playing an American journalist who, along with Isaac’s Mikael, also romances Ana, a spirited young tutor played by Charlotte Le Bon.
Rather than an angry polemic, “The Promise” takes on the tone of an elegy — a wistful tribute to a people who were wronged but still endure, continuing a story that goes back thousands of years.
Mikael is an apothecary from a small town who wants to be a doctor. He can’t afford the tuition to the Imperial Medical School in Constantinople, so he agrees to an arranged marriage to the daughter (Angela Sarafyan) of the wealthiest man in the city, using the dowry of 400 gold coins to pay his fees. The betrothed pair is pragmatic about the arrangement, content to build a life together and hope that affection can grow there.
In the capital, Mikael is awed by the trappings and possibilities of one of the great cities of the world. He falls in with Emre (Marwan Kenzari), a wealthy playboy and son of a high Turkish mercantilist. He stays with his well-to-do cousin, befriending his family and Ana. Like Mikael, Ana is from a small Armenian town, but has spent the last few years touring the world with her boyfriend.
Her relationship with Chris Myers (Bale), a noted reporter for the Associated Press, is difficult but stable. He fearlessly insults the Turkish leaders’ cozying up to the Germans, and when war breaks out he becomes the leading chronicler of the genocide for the West. Chris is hardly an objective observer, instilling his outrage into every dispatch and telegram.
The love between Mikael and Ana slowly grows, apparent to them both but something they are reluctant to pursue. He has promised himself to another, a vow that seems less and less viable as entire towns and populations are displaced or murdered outright. Meanwhile, Ana feels a duty to stand by Chris, even as his work becomes all-consuming.
Shohreh Aghdashloo is a memorable presence as Mikael’s mother, who pushes him to put his romance aside and remain faithful to his family and traditions. Rade Šerbedžija turns up as a leader of Armenian refugees, who is willing to run from the Turks — but only so far.
It’s a terrific, career-defining performance by Isaac, playing a man of innate gentleness and decency trying to negotiate an age of madness and hatred. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Sharif’s character in “Doctor Zhivago.” I hope his turn will be remembered when the next awards season rolls around.
I should note that “The Promise” has been targeted by genocide deniers for their bile. Among other things, they’re plastering negative ratings on movie websites like IMDb.com. Laughably, it received more than 80,000 ratings after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival with just three screenings, with most of those being one-star scores.
I’ve always said that anyone can be a critic, but the one sacrosanct requirement is that you have to have seen the movie before you’re allowed to offer your opinion on it.
I have seen “The Promise,” and my opinion is it’s the best film so far in 2017.