PLOT During World War I, an Armenian and an American fall for the same woman.
CAST Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale
RATED PG-13 (violence and brief sexuality)
BOTTOM LINE The real goal of this wartime romance is to publicize the Armenian genocide of World War I.
It’s tough times for Turkey, what with last year’s failed coup and an ongoing state of emergency. What’s more, it’s still fighting a century-old public relations battle over its refusal to classify the killing of Armenians during World War I as “genocide.” Weirdly, that battle is currently playing out in U.S. theaters. Last month’s “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” funded partly by the country and filmed there, made no mention of genocide at all. Now here comes “The Promise,” which pins the blame on Turkey as decisively as “Schindler’s List” blamed the Nazis. Whether you choose the term genocide, slaughter or massacre, one thing is clear: This hackneyed wartime romance is a catastrophe.
“The Promise” stars Oscar Isaac as Mikael, an Armenian apothecary who aspires to be a doctor. He’s poor but smart. By betrothing himself to a wealthy girl in his village, he can use the dowry to study medicine in glitzy Constantinople. Once there, he becomes smitten with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who is also Armenian but seems well-traveled and highly cultured. At the first flare-ups of racial violence — a Kristallnacht-style evening of torching and beating — the two new acquaintances cling to each other for safety and then conveniently fall into a hotel bed. So much for that promise.
For added tension, and perhaps added star power to get this movie booked at your local theater, Christian Bale is thrown in as Chris, a hard-charging American reporter dating Ana. He’s a crusading type whose insistence on writing about the Armenians lands him in a Turkish prison. All well and good, but Chris provides this film with one too many heroes. As both he and Mikael risk their lives to save a group of Armenian orphans, our attentions become impossibly divided. Ana seems split as well, but it’s hard to care about a woman who’s cheating on her boyfriend with someone’s fiance.
“The Promise” was spearheaded by the Armenian-American businessman Kirk Kerkorian, who put up $100 million in funding before his death in 2015. It’s directed and partly written by Terry George, but the urgency and sensitivity of his 2004 film, “Hotel Rwanda,” is nowhere to be seen here. “The Promise” fails to deliver.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this review used inappropriate language in its characterization of the film. The language has been removed.