Given its title, audiences could be forgiven for thinking that The Promise is a Nicholas Sparks-penned romance. It's not, although in truth this tale of love in the time of the Armenian genocide isn't all that different from the sappy fluff the author of The Notebook, The Lucky One and The Choice tends to peddle. Indeed, the latest effort from writer-director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) has a one-track agenda: bringing an attractive couple together, tearing them apart and then forcing them to overcome horrific obstacles in an attempt to reunite.
Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon play Armenians during the First World War. He's Mikael, a poor village apothecary who agrees to marry a local girl so he can use the dowry to pay for medical school in Constantinople. She's Ana, a well-off tutor who was raised in Paris. When sparks fly, there's plenty of complicating factors keeping them apart — including his betrothed back home and her boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), an arrogant but fearless American journalist. Then there's the matter of the Ottoman Empire's campaign of violence against their people, which hinders Mikael and Ana at every turn.
If it sounds as though we're downplaying the horrors inflicted on the Armenian population, that's because we're taking our cues from the film. The Promise never pushes the Turkish military's eradication efforts to the side — in fact, there's plenty of bleakness and brutality on display. Yet by using the conflict as a backdrop for a sweeping love story, the end result is the same. Given that the movie is billed as the first major feature to explore these particular events, that's obviously an problem. It really should go without saying that such an awful chapter of history doesn't need to be packaged as a grand romance to evoke an emotional reaction, and that it clearly deserves more considered, thoughtful treatment.
Of course, filmmakers have been pairing love and war for as long as they've been making movies. The problem is that The Promise doesn't even try to find the right balance. Instead, it turns a rising death toll into a glimmer of hope that the central duo will find a way to be together. When you think about what that could mean for the other players in their overlapping love triangles, it all seems not only calculated, but highly disrespectful as well.
Two factors at least help The Promise look the part, even if it struggles elsewhere. Handsome cinematography gives the movie the requisite epic sheen, while Isaac, Le Bon and Bale all put in solid performances. There's energy in their portrayals that isn't evident in the material otherwise, although sadly the trio can't completely enliven bland characters. Rather, they're stuck being the best things about a film that doesn't know the difference between having good intentions and actually following through on them.