From the award-winning director of Hotel Rwanda comes a powerful and sweeping epic set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Sparks fly when a humble Armenian medical student (Isaac) falls in love with an artist (Le Bon) already committed to a renowned and worldly journalist (Bale). But as tensions rise with the outbreak of World War I, the trio must set passions aside to survive as the world around them crumbles and one of history's darkest yet rarely told chapters unfolds before their eyes.
Perhaps because it was overshadowed by both the atrocities and the world war that followed, there's not been a whole lot of films covering World War I and even fewer addressing the Armenian genocide that took place in Turkey (then still calling itself the Ottoman Empire). The Promise is a good-faith effort to bring this sad piece of history to modern audiences, and while this is by no means a great movie, it's a noble one with some solid performances and impressive visuals and set pieces.
Director Terry George (who also wrote the screenplay, which is a re-write of a Robin Swicord script) gives us the facts of what happened wrapped around a fictional love triangle. It's an idea that has worked for historical films before (Titanic being the best example, Pearl Harbor being the worst), and while I could foresee almost every move the plot was going to make with its three primary characters, strong acting helps elevate what might have come off as otherwise melodramatic.
Oscar Isaac stars as Mikael Boghosian, a young Armenian who is looking to go to a prestigious medical school in Constantinople. In order to pay his way, he agrees to an arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy member of his community and uses the dowry to pay for his schooling. He heads off to school promising his wife-to-be that when he's finished, they'll get married.
Arriving in Constantinople, Isaac takes up residence with his wealthy uncle, who has employed the services of young Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) to give his children dancing lessons. Isaac is immediately smitten with Ana, despite being betrothed to the gal back home and despite the fact that Ana already has a boyfriend of her own: an American Associated Press writer named Chris Meyers (Christian Bale).
It isn't long before this trio finds themselves caught up in the events of what would be known as the Great War (and later, of course, World War I), as the Turkish leaders engage in a plan of ethnic cleansing of all Armenians, including death marches, prison camps, and executions. Isaac finds himself sent to one such prison camp, although he is able to escape and actually returns home for a period where he reluctantly keeps his promise and gets married. Meanwhile, Meyers is determined to get the story of what is happening into the mainstream press, but he's captured as well and accused of being a spy. The plot eventually leads to a reuniting of the three main characters, although their efforts to help fellow Armenians doesn't conclude without personal loss.
As a movie, The Promise is pretty average, but it at least shines a little light on a forgotten dark chapter of history. Even with the soap-opera-like romance at the heart of its story, the acting here is solid throughout and the importance of getting the story of what happened to the Armenian people out to a large audience shouldn't be overlooked. So, while these kind of movies aren't the most cheerful way to spend an evening, the effort and intention of the filmmakers make this one worth one's time.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Promise arrives on home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The dual-layer DVD and 50GB Blu-ray come housed inside an eco-Lite Vortex keepcase along with two inserts: one containing the code for a digital copy and the other an advertisement for Regal Cinemas' Crown Club rewards program. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase slides over top. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray are front-loaded with trailers for The Zookeeper's Wife, Megan Leavey, and The Last Word. The menu is the standard Universal design, with the box cover image on the right side of the screen and menu selections running vertically down the left side of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
The Promise was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa XT and is presented here in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The transfer here is a very nice one, with lots of detail and sharpness – to the point where it's sometimes a little too obvious when green screen and CGI are being used for background shots. Facial features are natural looking and consistent throughout, and black levels are inky deep with only the slightest hint of noise creeping into some of the dimmer and nighttime shots.
Considering this is a historical war movie, I was impressed by the various colors shown off here. Nothing is too bright or extravagant, and there's an intentional tendency to keep colors a bit subdued, but many of the visuals here look wonderful in 1080p. Despite the often somber tone of the movie itself, viewers will get quite a bit of enjoyment from this transfer.
The featured audio is a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and it's as equally impressive as the quality of the video. As you can probably guess given the theme of the movie, the story is very much dialogue-heavy, but that doesn't mean there aren't scenes where the audio really gets to show off. From thunderstorms to explosions to the rumblings of a train, there's often a very immersive feel to the proceedings. There's plenty of LFE use as well, which will please those who enjoy tracks that give one's subwoofer a good workout. No, this isn't quite up to the standards of the audio on a tentpole release from the studios, but it's quite impressive for movie such as this one. I detected no apparent glitches or issues with the track, either.
In addition to the 7.1 lossless track, a 2.0 Dolby Digital Plus Descriptive Video Service track is also available, as are subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Feature Commentary with Director Terry George – Known best perhaps for being the director/writer/producer of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George shares this commentary track with Producer Eric Esrailian, and the two men provide an informative, albeit mostly dry and somber, track about how the movie was put together. George and Esrailian seem to have provided the commentary track at the same time, but don't sound like they're in the same room together, as there's no talking over each other (but they do comment on what the other person is saying throughout). If I have any complaints about the commentary, it's that George often makes the mistake of spending too much time talking about what the characters are doing and why they are doing it – not needed, as the viewer can figure that out on his or her own. So, while far from the best commentary track, if you'd like to know more about the movie, this is worth at least one listen.
Deleted Scenes (HD 6:13) – A trio of deleted scenes from the movie, with optional commentary by Director Terry George. Viewers have the option of watching the scenes individually or all together. The scenes consist of the following:
Cleansing the Empire (2:54)
Morgenthau Resigns (1:16)
The Love Story (HD 2:36) – A look at the fictional romance that the movie uses as the catalyst to tell its true story about the Armenian genocide. Included here are comments from stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon, as well as Director Terry George.
War and Struggle (HD 2:51) – This featurette takes a look at both the fictional story and the real-life history depicted in the movie, with comments from Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Terry George.
A Cause (HD 3:19) – Yet another featurette with Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, James Cromwell, and Terry George giving a synopsis of the movie's storyline.
The Promise has a tricky job of trying to tell the true story of the Armenian genocide while still engaging viewers in its fictional romantic story. For the most part, it does a pretty good job balancing the two. The performances here are strong, despite a rather soap-opera-like script, and the visuals are impressive at times. This may not be the kind of movie viewers will want to watch more than once, but it's certainly Worth a Look.