If your taste for a love triangle set against a horrific war hasn’t really been satiated since Doctor Zhivago, then there’s a chance you’ll enjoy The Promise. From director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, Reservation Road), The Promise is about two men— Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), a medical student, and AP reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale)— who are both in love with the same person. The object of their desires is a woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian living in Turkey (like Mikael) in the last days of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks began a systematic, genocidal campaign against all Armenians in their country. What better backdrop to set a love story?
The Promise succeeds when it sticks to the individual stories of these characters. Mikael is the pride of his mother (Shobreh Aghdashloo) when he’s accepted into a Turkish medical school. But in order to afford the tuition, he must promise to wed Maral (“Westworld’s” Angela Sarafyan) for her dowery. This betrothal doesn’t stop him from falling for Ana, who works for Mikael’s host family in Turkey and is dating Chris, a journalist who is usually based in Paris, but is in Turkey covering what is clearly going to be a nasty conflict.
At about the halfway point of the movie, The Promise switches from a story of young lovers to a story of ethnically motivated war, as Turks begin rounding up Armenians. They tell the world they are taking them to camps, but in most cases they are secretly executing them by the thousands. The three leads become varying degrees of resistance fighters and eventually join others in taking up arms against the aggressors. The truth of what is happening around them hits home especially hard when Mikael goes home to round up his family to escape the oncoming horrors, when he realizes the Turks beat him there.
Isaac and Bale are also strong, although Bale seems a bit off his game, often being reduced to a jealous brute instead of focusing on the greater issues around him. Le Bon is one of the best things in the film, if only because Ana has her head in the game and can’t be worried about choosing one man over another when her entire world is collapsing around her. Director George (who co-wrote the film with Robin Swicord) peppers in a few interesting cameos along the way, with characters played by the likes of James Cromwell, Tom Hollander, and Jean Reno popping in at key moments. The Promise packs a great deal into a film that is only a little more than two hours long, and while some of the lighter material in the first half may seem tonally inappropriate, it also helps to make the much darker scenes later seem all the more terrible, as they should. Not a great work, the film still manages to pack a great deal of power into its punches. And while April seems like a strange time to put this movie into theaters, it’s better now than never.