The Promise review: an epic across the Turkish and Armenian landscape

27th April 2017


The Promise is an epic across the Turkish and Armenian landscape, seeking to bring to light all the atrocities that happened in the Armenian Genocide at the fall of the Ottoman empire. Focusing on the story of one man and his journey through this brutal regime, the film doesn’t shy away from anything that happened, but brings to the story a forced romance that becomes unnecessarily melodramatic. However, the Promise has the profound luck of having a stellar cast, with Oscar Isaacs, Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon giving terrific performances.

Oscar Isaacs leads as Michael, a Medical student, who has made the titular promise to marry a girl from his native village once he finishes studies in Istanbul. His mother Marta worries about this match but Michael is confident he will keep his promise and “will learn to love her in time”. It doesn’t take long for him to change his mind. Once in Istanbul he starts to fall for his uncle’s ballet teacher, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian who has lived in Paris since she was young. Her boyfriend Chris Myers (Bale), is a member of the Associated Press, determined to report the atrocities as they happen in Turkey, despite the regime’s efforts to paint him as a liar and a spy. The love triangle isn’t as nauseating as it is to read here, serving as a backdrop to move the plot forward across different locations and focus on the atrocities as they happen.

Starting off happily enough, Michael shows his proficiency as a gifted Medical student, with a great future ahead of him. The Promise takes pains to show that the regime hurt Armenian sympathisers just as much as the Armenians themselves. At University Michael makes friends with Emre (Marwan Kenzari), an Ottoman with many links to the regime. Michael has only just begun his studies before there’s a call for all Armenian’s to join the military, when his medical student exemption doesn’t work Emre steps in to protect his friend. This immediately brings him into trouble with his father and is forced into the military so he doesn’t bring more shame on to the family.

Once people start going missing and bodies start piling up the camera doesn’t shy away from showing the details, but it pulls back from anything truly gory. Director Terry George doesn’t over-explain the events as they unfold, with the fates of some characters completely absent while leaving the camera to linger on those fates they do show. 

The Promise is very engaging and there’s never a dull moment, so while the running time might look long it thankfully doesn’t feel like it. Its main weakness is the way the romance is contrived to take Michael across different areas of the Ottoman landscape, this does help provide a better idea of what the Armenians went through, but it should be more engaging. Solid performances, beautiful scenery and an important story makes this a film well worth checking out.

Words by Sunny Ramgolam

The Promise is released in cinemas on April 28, 2017

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