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Sappy Romance Betrays the War Story in The Promise

This period drama has epic aspirations, yet downplays its historical context in favor of romantic melodrama that diminishes the intended emotional impact.

A few films have tried, but none have really succeeded on a large scale, in doing justice to the story of the Armenian genocide on the big screen.

We can add The Promise to that unfortunate list. This handsomely mounted period drama has sweeping epic aspirations, yet tends to downplay its historical context in favor of romantic melodrama that diminishes the intended emotional impact.

The film takes place in 1915, on the brink of considerable pre-World War I upheaval in the Middle East. That provides the backdrop for the story of Michael (Oscar Isaac), a medical student who becomes engaged before heading off to school, vowing to return to his village for the wedding.

But when he arrives in Constantinople, he falls for a tutor (Charlotte LeBon), whose hotheaded journalist boyfriend (Christian Bale) naturally becomes suspicious. But when war breaks out shortly afterward and Michael’s homeland is threatened, all three form a reluctant alliance while trying to save lives and promote peace.

More than a century later, the Turkish government still has not accepted official responsibility for the genocide, for which real-life tensions continue to linger among descendants of the victims.

The Promise is actually the second film this spring — the other being The Ottoman Lieutenant — to use a love triangle (think Doctor Zhivago) as a springboard for exploring the final days of the Ottoman Empire, and specifically the conflict between the Turks and Armenians.

Conspiracy theorists have noted that the two films take opposite perspectives in somewhat suspicious fashion. But for most of us, the most critical shortcoming isn’t about politics, but the narrative deficiencies in each of them.

In this case, the screenplay co-written by director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) buries the most impactful material by focusing on a sentimental wartime romance among characters who aren’t all that intriguing to begin with. The increased suspense in the final act feels tacked-on by comparison.

Perhaps the film is meant to be considered on that more intimate level, and the three lead actors do their best to enliven mediocre material. However, considering its worthwhile subject matter, the film feels like a missed opportunity, preferring to offer sledgehammer examples of heroism and sacrifice — even suggested by the altruistic title — that feel more contrived than convincing.