The Promise Stops Short as a History Lesson
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 20, 2017
A consciousness-raiser about the extermination of Armenians at the outset of World War I, The Promise is a noble effort that has some moving moments but doesn't come together in a way that generates an emotional response equal to the atrocities it depicts. 2.5 out of 5.
In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an apothecary living in a Turkish village, gets engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan)—a woman he hopes he'll grow to love—before using her dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople. While there, he falls for Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian school teacher who's involved with American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). As the Turkish army begins targeting Armenians for extermination, Chris and Ana work with a pastor to help orphans flee the country.
The Armenian genocide has been overlooked, or simply ignored, for too long, so calling attention to this atrocity is admirable.
Isaac has delivered numerous outstanding performances and, following his higher profile after portraying Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, seemed primed to break out as a leading man here. Similarly, Le Bon was radiant in The Hundred-Foot Journey and The Walk, and seemed equally ready to ascend to the top tier of today's actresses. In neither case do the performances here fulfill that potential, nor does the almost always reliable Bale do enough to make up for other deficiencies.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Potentially rich religious themes are dealt with in a rather cursory fashion—a character is asked why he's concerned about Armenian Christians; a prayer during a funeral asks God to take a deceased child into His care; soldiers cross themselves—but the film is more interested in its romantic triangle than in its characters' faith. A reverend is on the front lines in helping Armenians escape, but while his actions are admirable and understandable, I wanted to hear more about how his faith led him to those moments. A minister is shown praying when people ask whether God will protect them, while another character cries out, "God help me!" after admitting to struggles with his desire for revenge.
Maral says she will pray for Mikael while he's away at medical school; a church service includes singing; a character says, "God bless you both"; a woman exclaims, "Oh, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Praise God!"; a character says, "My prayers have been answered"; one character, a pastor, helps the refugees; characters are said to be "heaven sent."
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality
- Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; "how in hell."
- Sexuality/Nudity: Kissing; an encouragement that a couple should "make babies"; a man and woman kiss in bed; briefly exposed breast; Mikael and Maral become engaged, with Mikael believing he'll grow to love her some day; a wedding
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Mikael removes a spleen during a medical-school procedure; blood splatters, causing a med student to faint; a character's father is said to have killed himself; a bribe offered; riots and looting; battle footage; a man is shot in the back, and another shot in the background of the frame; Mikael is hit with the butt of a gun; a suicide bomber; corpses shown on a boat; a kick to the groin; an unborn child is said to have been ripped from a womb; a character drowns.
Drugs/Alcohol: Some smoking and drinking, and a promise to stop drinking.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Those eager to see Christian characters involved in noble pursuits, and anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Armenian genocide.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those hoping for something equivalent to director Terry George's riveting Hotel Rwanda, or the cast members' more memorable projects.
The Promise, directed by Terry George, opens in theaters April 21, 2017. It runs 132 minutes and stars Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Angela Sarafyan, Shohreh Aghdashloo and James Cromwell. Watch the trailer for The Promise here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: April 20, 2017