‘The Promise’ review: Love triangle overshadows historical event

“The Promise,” set during the Armenian Genocide, focuses on an unsympathetic love triangle. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.

The Armenian Genocide is a curiously unexplored moment in modern history, cinematically speaking. That fact alone makes director and co-writer Terry George’s “The Promise “ intriguing enough. Historical fiction generally has it over documentaries in inspiring mass interest, especially when actors as appealing as Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon are involved.

And “The Promise” is a sprawling and handsome epic set during the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. But despite the best of intentions, the film fails to properly explain and contextualize both what led to that disgraceful episode, which Turkey to this day denies, and why it escalated as it did. Instead, “The Promise” chooses to focus on an unsympathetic love triangle that manages to trivialize the film overall.

The goal, as always, is to personalize events that are too big and too devastating to look at as a whole. Thus we’re given the character Michael Boghosian (Isaac), an Armenian medical student from a village in Southern Turkey who uses his fiancée’s dowry to study medicine in Constantinople. Michael isn’t in love with his fiancée (Angela Sarafyan), but such is life in Siroun, where marriages are arranged. He kisses her goodbye and heads off to the big city, promising to return in a few years.

Movie Review ★★  

‘The Promise,’ with Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon, Angela Sarafyan. Directed by Terry George, from a screenplay by George and Robin Swicord. 134 minutes. Rated PG-13 for material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality. Several theaters.

Constantinople is an oasis of temptation for Michael, who essentially falls for the first woman he sees. The beguiling Ana (Le Bon) is a cosmopolitan beauty and intellectual. And she’s an Armenian from around his hometown. Ana also happens to be in a long-term relationship with Chris Myers (Bale), an Associated Press reporter who we’re told drinks too much.

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While Michael is enjoying the city life and lusting after Ana, though, things are devolving around him. It’s 1914 and vague signs of war are emerging. Constantinople’s Armenian intellectuals start getting arrested and taken away. To where is unclear. To fight? To prison camps? To be executed?

Bale’s Myers chimes in occasionally with helpful exposition as he’s dictating articles, and yet it’s a wonder whether anyone who knows little about the events will be able to track what’s going on in a meaningful way.

“The Promise” is infinitely more interested in the triangle.

It’s unfair to critique such an utterly sincere film that does contain some riveting action and acting, and might inspire some to learn more about this…

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