This ambitious, sweeping, occasionally dramatically wobbly WWI-era epic arrives with the noble aim of raising awareness of the still-disputed Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million people died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). Director and co-writer Terry George (‘Hotel Rwanda’) goes for historical education by stealth, folding the chief milestones of this horror – the round-up of people of influence in Constantinople, violent oppression and mass killings, the siege of Musa Dagh in 1915 – into an English-language romantic triangle melodrama that plays out across 1914 and 1915 and takes in city, village, forest and mountain.
Oscar Isaac is an effective leading man, solid and troubled as Mikael, a go-getting ethnic-Armenian villager who arrives in the big smoke to study medicine who’s already committed to marry a girl back home, with some reluctance. A new friendship with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a dancer, complicates things, not least because she’s with Chris (Christian Bale, brash and brooding), a bullish US foreign correspondent. But the outbreak of war and the beginning of a vicious official policy towards the Armenian community and its supporters sends all their lives in a far more complex and dangerous direction.
You have to swallow some inadequacies to get the most out of ‘The Promise’. It is appealingly photographed and boasts some stunning location work, yet it’s also saddled with the tone of a biblical epic, invisibly watermarked with the label ‘important’. The fictionalised personal tragedies are never as compelling as the real horror, perhaps rightly, and some subtleties are left for other storytellers to explore. But still, ‘The Promise’ is handsome, accessible and illuminating, and some strong performances help to paper over the difficulties of a story with so much historical weight on its shoulders.