Love and War are unlikely twin siblings but in life as in art, they usually serve as a canvass to paint a story of triumph and tragedy. The landscape of movie world is littered with stories of love in the time of war and war in the time of love. Love and War may be unlikely siblings but they make compelling cinema.
In The Promise, Love and War serve as the background to retell the tragic story of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Government during the first world war in 1914.
The story starts out with the quest of its protagonist, Mikael Boghosian (played by Oscar Isaac) an Armenian apothecary, to become a doctor. He gets betrothed to a local Armenian girl and uses the dowry paid by the girl’s family to further his medical education in the Turkish capital, Constantinople.
He puts up in his wealthy uncle’s house in Constantinople and encounters the enchanting presence of his nieces’ dance teacher who is also of Armenian descent. A love triangle is inevitable as the dance teacher, Ana (played by Charlotte Le Bon) is herself romantically involved with her American journalist boyfriend, Chris Myers (played by Christian Bale).
But this budding love story is not going to play out happy with song and dance on a green-grassed hill. This is where love’s unlikely sibling, war, saunters in and casts a dark pall over love’s blue sky.
Just as love requires a single spark to ignite an inferno, war requires only a nudge to unleash an infernal beast. In war, how quickly friends become foes and neighbours become marauders astonishes as much as it questions the depth and genuineness of the comity once shared by contending parties.
When war eventually breaks out, the garment of brotherhood between the Turks and the Armenians is ripped apart and a fault line is drawn between them as the former haunt the latter branding them traitors and spies.
It is within this milieu of tragedy that Mikael and Ana give in to the irresistible pull of their attraction to each other. But war is more mischievous than love. Love brings Mikael to a crossroad between honouring his promise of marriage to his fiancée or going with the one who had captured his heart. War pushes him to the precipice of engaging the assistance of his Turkish friend’s bigoted father’s influence to secure the release of his uncle who had been captured and branded a traitor.
What love has joined together, war always rips apart. Mikael is captured whilst trying to secure the release of his uncle, and is sent to a work camp for Armenian prisoners. The star-crossed lovers are further driven apart when Mikael escapes from the camp and finds his way to his village where his mother prevails on him to honour his promise of marriage to his fiancée. On his father’s advice, Mikael and his new bride relocate to a remote farm up in the mountains.
As fate would have it, Ana smuggles Mikael’s uncle’s wife and niece from Constantinople back to his village where his mum (having honed in on the fact that Ana was Mikael’s love interest back in Constantinople) informs her that Mikael was dead.
As the movie progresses, you are not quite sure whether it is the love story that is intended to drive the movie using the war story as a backdrop or whether it is the war story that it intended to drive the movie using the love story as a backdrop. Whichever it is, neither quite delivers in terms of hard-hitting impact on the viewer’s sensory expectations.
The love story was predictable and lacking in intensity to stir up the much-required emotional investment a love story of star-crossed lovers demands. Mikael’s relationship with his fiancée-turned eventual wife was barely explored enough to coat it with sufficient flesh to warrant a crisis of conscience and emotions when he encountered Ana and fell for her. In fact, for one portrayed as a man of his word and integrity, the ease and speed with which he fell for Ana call these attributes to question (granted affairs of the heart can be particularly tricky even for those with stoic resolve).
On the other hand, the war story itself came across as lacking in the kind of viscerality one would expect from a war story replete with tales of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Seeing as director, Terry George, was also responsible for the viscerally impactful Hotel Rwanda, one cannot but observe a seeming restraint in achieving the anticipated carnage in The Promise.
As the star-crossed lovers, Mikael and Ana, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon gave noticeably subdued and restrained performances that did not quite achieve the intensity their love story required. The dynamics of their relationship that could have ignited the intensity that was lacking were clearly sacrificed to highlight the heroic and self-sacrificing attributes of their characters.
As rival lover cum war time reporter, Christian Bale imbued his portrayal of Chris Myers with so much insipidity that one is not quite rooting for him to get the girl in the end. Nor is one entirely convinced that his act of humanitarianism in the movie was not more inspired by romantic considerations than by humane altruism.
Implicit in Mikael’s promise of marriage to his fiancée (which going by the movie’s title, one can assume is the fulcrum of the movie) is the promise of fidelity. Yet, Mikael did not quite succeed in keeping that promise. He may have eventually redeemed himself but it was more of a flawed rather than a pristine redemption.
That’s the same feeling I got about the movie as the end credits rolled. The Promise did not quite keep its promise of delivering a compelling and visceral tale of love in the time of war and war in the time of love. It had a big budget and an effusive landscape to play with but it only succeeded in delivering a love story that was predictable and lacking in intensity and a war story that was tragic but viscerally underwhelming.5/10