Movie Review: “The Promise” is unkept

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Period piece romances set against the turmoil of war. They all start out as “Doctor Zhivago,” they all end up as “The English Patient” — or worse.

“The Promise” is a World War I love triangle tale set during Turkey’s Armenian Genocide. It has entirely too much going for it to dismiss it outright, like say “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” a Turkish-backed triangle whose bigger aim was to take the heat off the Turks for committing modern history’s first ethnic holocaust.

Oscar nominee Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) is the star, playing Mikael, a young rural Armenian who sets out for Constantinople just before World War I. He will study medicine, “do us proud,” his family declares. He is engaged to a woman (Angela Sarafyan) he will “grow to love.” He is to live with the family of a rich uncle in the city. They have an Armenian nanny raised in France. And since Ana played by French gamine-of-the-moment Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred Foot Journey”), we know where this is headed.

I mean, aside from the fate that awaits Armenians when Turkey is drawn into World War I. And aside from the fact that Ana is deeply involved with the hard-drinking, outspoken American reporter (Christian Bale) who is in the right place at the right time to be a witness to, and for, history.

When the war broke out, scholarship shows that the Ottoman Empire’s somewhat tolerated (but politically isolated) Armenian Christian minority had high hopes that their Russian cousins (who invaded, and were turned back) or British Empire would improve their lot. The Turks took out their rage on Armenians with riots and massacres and forced death marches. They called it a civil war, and in the movie, Turkish officials don’t even admit that to reporter Chris Myers. But it was a genocide, an attempt to exterminate an entire race.

And as Myers is drinking and traveling and witnessing all this and trying not to be executed by Turkish troops, Mikael is stealing his girl. Except he can’t, because, you know, back home, he made “The Promise.” His mother (the formidable Shohreh Agdashloo) won’t let him forget it.

Numan Acar is the rich, entitled Turk whom Mikael tries to help through medical school. But Mustafa’s imperious father, Faruk Pasha, is of the “Armenians are a tumor in our midst” persuasion. Mikael has to learn, as Myers drunkenly tells him, that he’s the “resident infidel — the first to go when the war breaks out.”

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Director and co-writer (with Robin “Memoirs of a Geisha” Swicord) Terry George, of “Hotel Rwanda” fame, tries to get it all in — the death marches, massacres, forced labor camps.

Tom Hollander has a showy cameo as a concentration camp circus clown. “I used to make the children laugh.”  That’s a reference to the way Jerry Lewis trivialized the Holocaust in “The Day the Clown Cried.” Jean Reno has a cameo as a French Navy captain.  Veteran character actor Rade Serbedzija plays an Armenian elder who organizes resistance to the Turks as he leads his people to safety.

The best you can say about the whole agglomeration is that it’s an over-reach. The love stories get short shrift when they try to cram all that history in. And the history gets short shrift whenever we turn back to the love story, with its tortured loyalties, tests of friendship and unemotional “promise.”

Bale, who starred in “The Flowers of War,” as an American caught up in the Japanese “Rape of Nanking,” brings fair value and high-mindedness to a cliche character, and Isaac gamely gives Mikael a go.

You can see why lots of good people got involved. Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett lent their star power to “The Ottoman Lieutenant” for similar reasons, no doubt. It’s a big story, a not-quite-forgotten piece of history. It needs illumination.

But “The Promise,” despite its battles, its vivid recreation of the last days of Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), its historical sweep,despite a very good cast, never feels “epic” and rarely do its romantically drawn characters draw us into their romance and their tragedy.

It all combines to make us a promise it never keeps.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte LeBon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, James Cromwell, Jean Reno
Credits: Directed by Terry George, written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. An Open Road release.
Running time: 2:12

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