If the movies are going to treat Oscar Isaac like the magnetic, soulful gem that he is, they need to avoid saddling him with airless slogs like “The Promise.” This well-meaning epic about a rarely-dramatized tragedy — the Armenian genocide coinciding with World War I — operates from the same sweep-with-suds playbook that’s turned many an important historical subject into facile timeline melodrama.
Director, co-writer and frequent war dramatist Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Some Mother’s Son”) makes a glossy grab for the David Lean brass ring, and it certainly benefits from someone like Isaac front and center. The actor stars as a bright, conscientious medical student caught up in the worsening tensions between Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire.
“The Promise” is also no slouch when it comes to the laudable work of the costumers, location scouts and designers who helped mount this made-for-the-big-screen production. The film’s unequivocal message — that ethno-religious slaughter occurred at the hands of the Turks — is to be commended, since even Turkey still won’t call what happened genocide.
But stories swaddled in such horrific events are tricky exercises when the effort to entertain with beautiful stars and a clichéd love story collides with the reality of a death march that killed 1.6 million people. As earnest as its “Doctor Zhivago” intentions are, “The Promise” will invariably test your tolerance for will-they-won’t-they romance, and for the draggy three-act drumbeat of peril, survival and coincidence.
It’s 1914 when Isaac’s character, village apothecary Michael Boghosian, decides to enter into a marriage pact with demure beauty Maral (Angela Sarafyan). Receiving a tuition-paying dowry is the only way he’s going to get out of his tight-knit but unsophisticated mountain town to study medicine in Constantinople so he can bring modern doctoring back home.
For a solid chunk of screen time, the movie breezily conveys the intoxicating possibility of a cosmopolitan city, thanks to the burnished sweep of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography, and Gabriel Yared’s old-fashioned score. Michael settles into his studies in Constantinople, living with a gregarious relative of his father, befriending a raffish Turkish classmate, and — uh oh — becoming drawn to the worldly charms of Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, “The Walk”), an Armenian artist just returned from Paris.
The triangle is completed by Ana’s boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale), an American journalist sniffing out the increasingly-worrisome friendship between the Turks and the Germans, despite the deepening bond happening right under his nose.
When war breaks out, it turns Turks into militant nationalists, Armenians into a convenient enemy, and, in the movie’s orbit, its characters into the kind of geopolitical pawns you’ve seen countless times before, only moved around with much less skill in George’s and Robin Swicord’s clunky screenplay. It’s one thing for Michael and Ana to realistically grow close after a nighttime clash on the street with violent Turks, another for them to be given the trite wound-dressing-leads-to-intimacy followup scene.
Chris, meanwhile, is now off in his own intrepid-correspondent movie, following the clues that point to what the Turks have in mind; whether we’re supposed to take him as a war-movie lead or a romance-movie cuckold is never entirely clear. (Bale, set of jaw and stern of voice, clearly prefers the heroics.)
The journey for Michael, on the other hand, is one of betrayal, arrest, enforced labor (where he meets an embittered ex-clown played by Tom Hollander), narrow escape, a calm return to his hometown to fulfill his vow to wed Maral (and to satisfy his mother, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo). Eventually, Michael comes face-to-face with what his people are up against; fleeing once again, he encounters a river full of slaughtered Armenians, and it isn’t any surprise to discover he knows one of them. Isaac is too good an actor not to make this moment count, but the fact that a certain character’s death allows the love story to continue gives the whole scene an icky undercurrent of plot convenience.
War is hell, but dramatizing it is this movie’s undoing, as the circumstances pile up that separate, reunite and threaten the main characters, and scenes meant to crescendo with the weight of atrocity and suffering fall all too neatly into their expected story holes. Even more off-putting is the notion that depicted evidence of genocide can be used as a pivot for a final act of spirited rebellion (the real standoff at Musa Dagh), a romantic reunion, and a massive just-in-time rescue.
There’s simply no time for the impact of anything that happens to get its reflective due, because the movie is too busy reverting to the up-and-down status of Michael’s and Ana’s increasingly inconsequential relationship while lining up its next large-scale set piece.