In The Promise, Oscar Isaac plays a young Armenian man, Mikael Pogosian, who leaves his small village to go to medical school in Constantinople. The titular promise refers to his pledge to return and marry a village girl (Angela Sarafyan), whose dowry is paying for his education. It is the eve of World War I, right before a genocide against the Armenian people which remains unrecognized by Turkey to this day. This is probably the lesser of the barriers preventing Mikael’s fulfillment of the promise. The larger is the governess and dancer, Ana (Charlotte le Bon), who catches his eye at his patron’s palatial household.
They are both Armenian, but Le Bon masquerades as one with slightly less success than Isaac, who has made quite a career so far of adapting his ambiguous features. Le Bon is a French actress who looks like a Botticelli painting that wasn’t allowed to eat for two weeks who attributes her French accent to a childhood abroad. Isaac meanwhile is saddled with an “Armenian” accent, which is a triumph in that it proves to be less annoying than you initially fear it will be. The Ottoman Turks speak in crisp British, which helps to emphasize that Isaac is not so much meant to sound authentic as he is supposed to sound evidently foreign.
The first part, where Pogosian experiences city life, falls in love, makes friends and studies is substantial, but there’s a lot more to go. It’s a full movie, but at two-plus hours, it doesn’t feel cluttered or plodding. The director Terry George is most famous for Hotel Rwanda, but I don’t remember rapid cuts in that movie that are so striking here. I felt like I was watching À Bout de Souffle at moments, which was a funny and disconcerting feeling in such a traditional, sweeping narrative.
In most other respects, it seems to take entirely appropriate cues from traditional war movies. You have your mandatory scene of Germans singing patriotic songs, striking discord in placid, pre-war gatherings. You have a love triangle between two good men whose decency and devotion to the cause are at least as strong as their love for the girl, with Isaac’s Mikael and an American AP reporter played by Christian Bale taking up the roles of Rick Blaine and Victor Laszlo.
This review is definitely too light-hearted for the subject at the heart of the movie, but it is more in response to an almost anachronistic quality to the movie’s tone. It hearkens back to the time of decent, reasonably ambitious, but self-contained movies that had their heyday some ten to fifteen years ago. There’s something comforting about such a straight-shooting movie, with its old-fashioned decency.
But certainly the content of the plot itself is anything but comforting. Terry George pulls no punches where the fates of the characters are concerned. With such traditional presentation, though, you might feel sad, invested, or scared, but the ground will never fall out from beneath you.