“The Promise,” sounds like the title of an ultra-weepy rom-com, perhaps based on a bestseller by Nicholas Sparks, in which someone who is dying of cancer falls in love with someone who needs to learn valuable lessons about slowing down and smelling the roses with the majority of the scenes bathed in golden light. However, the rather uninspired title in reality is the latest film – after last year’s “Free State of Jones” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” about a man who serves on the battlefield as a medic first, not as a fighter. Like “The Free State of Jones,” (about a Southern rebel group during the Civil War), “The Promise,” which tells the story of the last days of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish genocide of native Armenians (a tragedy that has yet to be acknowledged by Turkey’s government) and stars Oscar Isaac, places women and children in the thick of the battle – only in this case, they’re unarmed, increasing the horror factor considerably.
“The Promise” is also a love triangle, in which (spoiler alert) not all the major players make it to the credits. It begins when Oscar, as a young man, uses his wife’s dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople, not being able to afford it otherwise. There’s no backstory about him as a child; instead he arrives at the university quickly, where he meets a genial classmate (Marwan Kenzari) who has chosen medicine over the military to the dismay of his well-connected father. He also becomes acquainted with a young woman illustrator/governess (Charlotte Le Bron) and her sort-of-boyfriend Christian Bale, an American journalist who wears both distracting facial hair and the same suit for the entire movie. But soon reality intrudes on their bohemian lifestyle, and Oscar finds himself in danger of losing his position as a student. The children of the family he boards with are also in peril, and Christian attempts to help them find refuge. One thing leads to another, however, resulting in Oscar being placed in a labor camp, Marwan in the army, and Christian also in jeopardy, as he risks being captured and executed as a “spy.” The four friends’ paths will cross and re-cross throughout the film, as they deal with issues of loyalty and betrayal.
As you might expect, the movie is long on action and short on romance. There is an extended sequence that rivals many thrillers, in which Oscar escapes from camp, hitches a ride on a train of prisoners who beseech him to free them, falls into the sea, then crawls to land – (and emerges remarkably unscathed, but that’s movie logic for you). There are also heartbreaking scenes that take place in the woods – the fleeing of innocents reminding me of similar ones in “Logan,” only of course, these people have only their wits to rely on. But perhaps the most chilling scene for me was when Christian is confronted by a top official who, displeased at reading his notes, blandly announces, “There is no war.” However, reality proved otherwise, and “The Promise,” is a valuable contribution to public knowledge of this atrocity.