If there was any promise evident in Terry George and Robin Swicord’s often clunking screenplay before production started, it is not apparent in the final film. It has been stolen away, in these flat, overlit scenes edited with a clear mandate to keep the running time low and accompanied by this overwrought score. Even Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, two exceptionally talented performers come off stiff and uncharismatic and, despite much of the personal drama stemming for their love triangle with Charlotte Le Bon, their chemistry was so flaccid that even the sex scenes failed to be in any way erotic.
I get the sense that George wanted to make a capital E Epic, the film starts with Mikael, a small town apothecary, moving to Constantinople to study medicine. In order to afford it he gets engaged to a local woman, using his dowry to pay the school fees. It’s a confusing mess, characters are thrown onto the screen with no proper introduction, we’re hurried through these happenings as a voiceover, a tool used nowhere else in the flick, narrates the events to us. Even basic story stuff, like showing us the main character’s mother, a woman who plays a large role later on, is forgotten. I assume because some producer at some point said it felt too long.
Well, whatever butchery they’ve done to it hasn’t worked. It still feels long. I guess we could thank them for not wasting too much of our time on it, but at two and a quarter hours long so let’s not be overgenerous. It could have been shorter, I guess they were just putting so much money on the screen they wanted to show it off. So much of the first act, studying medicine in Constantinople, waiting for the genocide to begin, is superfluous. We’re not seeing the tensions build, we’re seeing this shitty love triangle, one third of whom is, for all his graces later on, a drunk, abusive news reporter. Oh, I do wonder who our girl will choose…
Oh, and there’s like a few shitty, awkward dance scenes. Not like, cute awkward, love to spend time with these characters awkward, like filmically awkward, weirdly put together and silent awkward. When the slaughter starts it’s almost a relief that we no longer have to spend time enduring this sort of thing. The super boring staging of every single scene never quite lifts up though.
I don’t mean to be making light of the Armenian genocide. It’s a horrific moment in history that both its perpetrators and still too many others around the world still deny. It doesn’t make The Promise a good movie though, what it does is give our heroes plenty of opportunities to be good and righteous and honourable and pure.
It’s the old complaint, the same argument that crops up time and again regarding holocaust films. It’s hard to create an honest film about one of humanity’s greatest collective moral failings, when our traditional methods of storytelling require us to produce victors and losers. There’s a scene in which, having escaped a labour camp, Mikael rests on the roof of a cargo cart, only to realise it is full of Armenian prisoners. The film places us on the outside of the cart, the film sets its mass shootings offscreen, a soldier executes a refugee as we watch on through binoculars.
The Armenian genocide deserves movies, it deserves to be told. Hell, I’m an ignorant fool, it probably has been. It just needs to be done better than this. I imagine there exists somewhere a cut of this film which isn’t incompetent. There’s a whole bunch of talented folks working on it as I look through the credits online, but somewhere it all got fucked up.
I really do wish it hadn’t.
The Promise is currently playing in UK cinemas