In “The Promise,” intense hidden emotions are suddenly unleashed, threatening plans, vows and even lives. Also, there’s a war.
“The Promise” was financed by Armenian-Americans — including Hollywood and Las Vegas magnate Kirk Kerkorian, who died before it was completed — to highlight what the film presents as the murder of 1 1/2 million Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I. (The government of Turkey, which disputes the death toll, has refused to acknowledge the violence as genocide.)
As a history lesson, the movie is reasonably effective, if excessively mild. But in hope of making the message more congenial, the horrors are presented mostly as the backdrop to a love triangle that cribs from “Dr. Zhivago” and “Titanic.”
When the tale begins, it’s 1914 and Michael (Oscar Isaac) is a small-town pharmacist who wants to become a doctor. He accepts an arranged engagement to a woman he doesn’t know so he can use her dowry for tuition at a medical school in what was then called Constantinople.
Arriving at the big-city home of his wealthy uncle, Michael is immediately smitten with his young nieces’ vivacious dance teacher, Ana (French actress Charlotte Le Bon). Both Michael and Ana are Armenian; Ana’s accent is explained by her long residence in Paris.
Michael’s fiancee isn’t the only barrier to romance with Ana. She already has a boyfriend: American journalist Chris (Christian Bale). He’s a firebrand truth-teller, warning Michael that “You’ll be the first to go” if war erupts and telling off a few of Turkey’s smug German-uniformed allies — in fluent German.
Director Terry George, who’s best known for “Hotel Rwanda,” takes co-writing credit for expanding on Robin Swicord’s original script. George added the character of Chris, who serves two narrative purposes. As a journalist, he’s able to keep traveling and bearing witness, while Michael and Ana are hiding or imprisoned. Also, Chris personifies the protests by the American government, which was one of the few to object to what has come to be known as the Armenian genocide.
George also deploys U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell, in one of the movie’s several high-wattage cameos). He delivers a condemnation of Turkey’s crimes that’s derived from Morgenthau’s own account.
Amid all the swooning and speechifying, “The Promise” does depict individual executions, mass slaughters and a work camp where prisoners’ only choice is between slow or quick death. But the movie dials back the carnage to PG-13 and repeatedly softens its blows.
Attempting to make an atrocity palatable to a mainstream audience, “The Promise” delivers the history but undercuts its impact.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality.