Sweep and scope can’t prevent a passable treatment of an essential tale

David G. Hughes on Terry George’s ‘The Promise’ (2016)

If you are deciding whether to go and see The Promise at a cinema near you, don’t consult IMDb. If you needed further evidence of the fallibility of consensus criticism, look no further than the current 4.2 critical rating that the website declares. Now, The Promise is far from a perfect film, but it’s not that bad. No, this is the result of an orchestrated political campaign to discredit the film and discourage people from seeing it. After three low-key pre-release screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, there had been, funnily enough, over 80,000 reviews of the film, most being one star. Why? To some, truth is a political inconvenience. Specifically, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s crime against humanity — the 1915 Armenian Genocide that led to the prejudiced extermination of 1.5 million people, the very topic of this new film directed by Terry George. Thank you to these Genocide Deniers for reminding us of the potency of truth, how much it can scare you, and how film remains the perfect medium for revealing and illuminating. A lot of you may not know about this disaster (this critics knowledge, to his shame, was extremely limited), and so the act of seeing still retains its humanist potential.

For this reason alone, one feels inclined to give The Promise an effusive review merely as a limited retort against these disagreeable manoeuvrings, to counter the negative spin with positive words that will encourage you to see the film. But this is surely not the role of a film critic. Besides, one cannot serve truth by telling a lie. While there is much to appreciate within this old-fashioned historical romantic melodrama in the David Lean tradition (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), including a strong performance by Oscar Isaac as an Armenian doctor studying in Constantinople, his opulent charisma recalling Omar Sharif, it ultimately fails to inspire or convince as a cohesive film. With a drab, sagging middle segment and a formulaic narrative treatment of the genocide, one gets the feeling that genocide films are becoming their own perverse sub-genre, especially when director George is otherwise known for Hotel Rwanda(2004), a film about the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi population. What starts as a relative equilibrium is soon followed by an introduction of romance, both then disrupted by disastrous historical events, and then the ending leaves us with the statistical horror of the disaster for us to contemplate on during the way home. This romance-interrupted-by-tragic-history genre has its roots further back than Titanic (1997) as some like to bemoan, it goes right back to Scarlet O’Hara and the American Civil War in Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s become a staple of the Hollywood liberal left to remind ourselves of these tragic histories, via the entertainment of film, something I am not yet unconvinced by or cynical towards.

And yet how prescient, how timely, that this film see’s the light of day just as Turkey voted ‘Yes’ to make brutish President Erdogan a de-facto dictator. Watching Christian Bale as tempered American journalist Christopher Myers get arrested for reporting in an oppositional manner to Turkish authority has unsettling modern connotation’s considering the ongoing purge within Turkey against journalists, intellectuals and political opposition. Turkey now sites as the #1 country in the world for jailed journalists. With such deep contemporary resonance, the film is a stark reminder of histories penchant for copy-and-paste, and what can happen when the spectre of nationalism and imperialism remerges like a weed not yet uprooted. The Promise showcases the monsters that we summon when a collective start waving flags, angry at a minority. Set in an Age of Empire’s, as the First World War breaks out, this is not a lesson applicable only to Turkey, but to all those who threaten war and hatred as a result of post-colonial heritage and referenda.

The intent of The Promise is admirable and its exposure to the crime necessary, being for the most part effective. Isaac emotes effectively to hammer down the tragedy, whilst Bale, somewhat typically, is rancorous and shouty at pointy-helmet German imperialists. The film is not devoid of epic lavishness, with great location shooting, sweeping cinematography and sincere sentiment. No expense has been spared. But one can only speculate how something this earnest, self-important and gushy will be received by today’s ironic and sardonic movie-going audience. For its message at least — when your existence offends someone, merely continuing to survive is the greatest revenge — one hopes that they buy into it. As a film, this is passable. As a tale, it is essential.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.