In the early 20th century, Mikael (Oscar Issac) is a man who runs an apothecary shop in a small village in Armenia, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Although he enjoys working in the shop which his family has owned for generations, he has always dreamed of becoming a doctor. For this reason, he agrees to an arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy family, and uses the dowry money to enroll in a prestigious medical school in the capital of the Empire, Constantinople (now Istanbul). While there, he meets and falls in love with another Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) who lives in the city with her American journalist boyfriend Chris (Christian Bale). However, things take a turn for the worst when the Empire is embroiled in the First World War, and public sentiment against the country’s Armenian population begins to turn.
The Promise is in many ways a throwback to the epic historical romances of days gone by. It has the gorgeous location shoots in exotic locales, the passionate love story (complete with love triangle), and the aura of a time and place long vanished. The first and last of those points are very well done in the film, which really succeeds at evoking the romance of its time period with its cinematography, set and costume design, and visual style. If you’re a fan of historical dramas, for sheer immersion factor this one shouldn’t be missed.
However, where the film drags is the love story itself. It’s not badly written, exactly, but it does feel very generic. It’s very similar to what you see in many of the films this one draws inspiration from, but it never lives up to those classics. Apart from that, I’m not even sure the love story was needed at all in this film. The Armenian Genocide is a very heavy subject, which the film depicts fully and accurately (which is surprising considering how unknown the event is in the United States). The second half of the film, where the real meat of the plot is, excises most of the romance and I think the film was better off for it, since it picked up the pace and allowed a greater focus on the horrible events themselves.
Essentially, The Promise is a solid period piece which unfortunately has to share its screen time with a middling love story. If the latter had been cut from the film, it probably would have been an excellent period piece. However, even as it stands, the film is still worth seeing if you enjoy a good historical epic or want to learn about the sadly overlooked Armenian Genocide.