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Oscar Isaac can't save the leaden epic 'The Promise'

A noble film about the Armenian genocide features fine actors suffering through cheesy filmmaking.
The Promise
Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon are not very convincing as suffering Armenians in the docudrama "The Promise." Credit: Jose Haro, Open Road Films

‘The Promise’
Director:
Terry George
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“The Promise” is old-fashioned, but that’s not a compliment. Not all fashions are equally stellar; some have rightfully died out. One of the perks, if you will, of the sad demise of the mid-budget film is we’re now mostly spared manipulative middlebrow twaddle like this — films that mean well yet wind up cheapening real life tragedies. Sneaking into the multiplex next door to “The Fate of the Furious,” the pricey “The Promise” uses big stars to nobly spread the word about the Armenian Genocide, when the Turkish government allegedly exterminated some 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I — a disaster Turkey denies to this day. Nobility is all it’s got.

That’s not fair: Oscar Isaac tries his damndest as Mikael, a small town Armenian who journeys to Constantinople to study medicine, arriving just in time for the Ottoman Empire to crumble. We don’t learn much about why the Turkish population suddenly turns on Mikael’s kind; all we hear are hissable jerks calling Armenians “a tumor in our midst.” Mikael will have to run to survive this inexplicably vague but very real menace, experiencing unimaginable loss along the way, all while Isaac wrestles with clunky and wincingly expository dialogue. (Then again, you try to say, "I will make you proud, papa," without laughing.)

Unimaginable horrors apparently weren’t enough for the makers of “The Promise”; they also felt compelled to throw in a love triangle, as though Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was a movie worth ripping off. And so Mikael is in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), but she’s dating a gallant yet shifty Associated Press reporter (Christian Bale, with an aggressive goatee), who takes time out of spiriting news of war crimes out of Turkey to intimidate his romantic rival. Will they survive the genocide? And, perhaps most importantly, which one will Ana choose?

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This is the kind of well-meaning but clueless film where no one looks like their ethnicity, where great English actors (like Tom Hollander) look like they simply fell asleep in a tanning booth. Lilywhite Le Bon is supposed to be playing Armenian, too, and the film awkwardly explains this away by saying she spent years in Paris, which apparently lightened her complexion and Frenchified her accent. By the coda, in which Isaac makes a fiery wedding toast while pounding the table a la Steven Seagal at the end of “On Deadly Ground,” it’s hard not to chuckle at a movie that’s trying, poorly, to do the Lord’s work.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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