The Promise has been marketed as a romance set against the backdrop of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. So hey, pop quiz: Do you guys remember what happened during the fall of the Ottoman Empire? Answer: the Armenian genocide. Yeah—not a great time for romance, and definitely not a great setting for an awkward attempt at a romantic film.
The Promise finds its hero, Michael (Oscar Isaac), taking the dowry from his engagement to go to med school in Constantinople, where he falls in immediate, obvious love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian and a boringly flawless woman. Ana, for some reason, is dating American journalist Chris (Christian Bale), even though it kinda seems like she hates him. The first 20 minutes of this film are so painfully bright, fake, and weird that I would’ve bailed if I didn’t have to finish watching the movie for my job.
But then the genocide starts, and The Promise becomes a whole different thing. Which is good, because if they were merely using the systematic elimination of an entire culture as a plot device to a boring affair, that would be beyond bad taste. Instead, The Promise turns into (mostly) a war movie: Michael is separated from Ana and Chris, and we follow him through his brutal, stressful, and devastating journey of trying not to die when everyone else did. This part—the war part, the awfulness—is done so well that I hated every second of it. Because I am a human being with a heartbeat and it was horrific.
The stark difference between the saccharine start and everything after is unfortunate. The Promise would have been better and more effective without the cheesy love triangle that starts it off, and if it had just been honest about what it is: a war film. We don’t need a bright, fake romance to make us care about massacred civilians.