Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 132 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This historical drama about the Turkish government’s Armenian genocide during World War I involves a fair amount of war-related violence, including villages that are attacked and destroyed, people who are beaten, shot, and killed, mass graves of bodies, shootouts, and bombings. Also a scene set during a medical school autopsy, with a body opened for examination; some cursing; some gory and upsetting moments, including lots of blood and the description of what soldiers did to a pregnant woman; some drinking, some kissing, a scene at a belly-dancing club, and implied sex scenes.
The historical drama ‘The Promise’ focuses on a love triangle during World War I, when the Turkish government enacted large-scale murder against the country’s Armenian minority. The film benefits from strong performances, but the lack of proper historical context dampens its full historical relevance.
By Roxana Hadadi
It must be difficult to create a film about an event that many people refuse to acknowledge even happened. That is the uphill battle encountered by “The Promise,” a historical drama about the Armenian genocide enacted by the Turkish government during World War I—an event that Turkey argues didn’t occur, and that online trolls have used to attack “The Promise” before the movie has even been released. That is why you may already be seeing negative reviews of “The Promise” online, as an undermining of the content of the film instead of its quality—which is far better than what those commenters would lead you to believe.
“The Promise” begins with two lines of text about how the Ottoman Empire is on the brink of collapse, and how its Greek, Assyrian, and Armenian minorities are in danger from the changes to come. But in 1914, Armenian Turk Mikael (Oscar Isaac, of “X-Men: Apocalypse”) is more concerned about his own future, agreeing to marry wealthy villager Maral (Angela Sarafyan) so he can use her dowry to fund his medical school education. Newly engaged, he sets off for Constantinople, where he befriends the well-connected Turk Emre (Marwan Kenzari, of “Ben-Hur”) and immediately falls for his nieces’ nanny, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, of “The Walk”).
Mikael and Ana have a lot in common: They’re both Armenian from small villages, both enthralled by the urban, European lifestyle of Constantinople, and both concerned about what it means when the German military provides resources to the Turkish military, effectively pulling them into World War I. Turkey is “starting to look a lot like Berlin,” notices Ana’s professional and romantic partner, Associated Press reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale, of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), and as an American, he has the leeway to say what the Armenians cannot: that it seems like the Germans are also funding a “holy war to fight the infidel,” including the ethnic minorities like the Armenians.
And so, slowly and then suddenly all at once, hostilities between the Turks and the Armenians explode, with Armenian men arrested and sent to labor camps, Armenian villages destroyed, and Armenian children left orphaned. In the midst of this, Mikael and Ana begin a relationship that they both know cannot continue—especially when Mikael is captured by Turkish forces, and Ana and Chris, believing that he’s dead, devote themselves to helping Armenian children escape the escalating violence. How their three lives progress during this time, and whether they will ever cross paths again, is chronicled by “The Promise.”
Most of the time, “The Promise” feels like quite an old-fashioned movie—it focuses on big, overwhelming emotions to underscore the violence and turmoil of that time, like a first kiss between Mikael and Ana that occurs during a moment of despair, and you could very well see the plot coming from an epic of the 1950s or 1960s. In that way, the movie often lets its historical-education mission take precedence over anything else: Characters are only barely developed, the romance between Ana and Mikael seems to develop immediately, and the tragedies experienced by the Armenians come one after another after another.
What is most lacking, though, is a contextual offering by “The Promise” for why any of this happened at all. The film’s two grounding sentences in the very beginning aren’t enough to address the tensions between the Turks and the Armenians or to explain how they developed over time, or why the collapse of the Ottoman Empire mattered, or how the manipulation of the Germans in this situation would then shape World War II in the next decades. Movies don’t need to be textbooks, but the lack of effort by “The Promise” to ground this all historically means that the film instead, frustratingly, falls back on the “Turks were evil Muslims incapable of tolerating other religions” argument, which is a lazy way to speak to modern audiences, and one that feeds into biased stereotypes already rampant about Islam.
That’s not to defend the Turks—the Armenian genocide was an international disgrace, and “The Promise” will educate many people about an event that, disgustingly, people still deny even happened. But “The Promise” would have been a better movie for giving more time to its characters and its context.
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