The Prom­ise

The Washington Post - - MOVIES - BY MARK JENK­INS goin­gout­guide@wash­post.com

Oscar Isaac and Chris­tian Bale love the same woman in this WWI ro­mance.

In “The Prom­ise,” in­tense hid­den emo­tions are sud­denly un­leashed, threat­en­ing plans, vows and even lives. Also, there’s a war.

“The Prom­ise” was fi­nanced by Ar­me­nian Amer­i­cans — in­clud­ing Hol­ly­wood and Las Ve­gas mag­nate Kirk Kerko­rian, who died be­fore it was com­pleted — to high­light what the film presents as the mur­der of 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans by the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment dur­ing World War I. (The gov­ern­ment of Turkey, which dis­putes the death toll, has re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the vi­o­lence as geno­cide.)

As a his­tory les­son, the movie is rea­son­ably ef­fec­tive, if ex­ces­sively mild. But in hope of making the mes­sage more con­ge­nial, the hor­rors are pre­sented mostly as the back­drop to a love tri­an­gle that cribs from “Dr. Zhivago” and “Ti­tanic.”

When the tale be­gins, it’s 1914 and Michael (Oscar Isaac) is a small-town phar­ma­cist who wants to be­come a doc­tor. He ac­cepts an ar­ranged en­gage­ment to a woman he doesn’t know so he can use her dowry for tu­ition at a med­i­cal school in what was then called Con­stantino­ple.

Ar­riv­ing at the big-city home of his wealthy uncle, Michael is im­me­di­ately smit­ten with his young nieces’ vi­va­cious dance teacher, Ana (French ac­tress Char­lotte Le Bon). Both Michael and Ana are Ar­me­nian; Ana’s ac­cent is ex­plained by her long res­i­dence in Paris.

Michael’s fi­ancee isn’t the only bar­rier to ro­mance with Ana. She al­ready has a boyfriend: Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Chris (Chris­tian Bale). He’s a fire­brand truth-teller, warn­ing Michael that “You’ll be the first to go” if war erupts, and telling off a few of Turkey’s smug Ger­man-uni­formed al­lies — in flu­ent Ger­man.

Di­rec­tor Terry Ge­orge, who’s best known for “Ho­tel Rwanda,” takes co-writ­ing credit for ex­pand­ing on Robin Swicord’s orig­i­nal script. Ge­orge added the char­ac­ter of Chris, who serves two nar­ra­tive pur­poses. As a jour­nal­ist, he’s able to keep trav­el­ing and bear­ing wit­ness, while Michael and Ana are hid­ing or im­pris­oned. Also, Chris per­son­i­fies the protests by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, which was one of the few to ob­ject to what has come to be known as the Ar­me­nian geno­cide.

Ge­orge also de­ploys U.S. Am­bas­sador Henry Mor­gen­thau (James Cromwell, in one of the movie’s sev­eral high-wattage cameos). He de­liv­ers a con­dem­na­tion of Turkey’s crimes that’s de­rived from Mor­gen­thau’s own ac­count.

Amid all the swoon­ing and speechi­fy­ing, “The Prom­ise” does de­pict in­di­vid­ual ex­e­cu­tions, mass slaugh­ters and a work camp where pris­on­ers’ only choice is be­tween slow or quick death. But the movie di­als back the car­nage to PG-13 and re­peat­edly softens its blows. There’s a partly happy end­ing, fa­cil­i­tated by none other than a swash­buck­ling Jean Reno, and a scene in which Michael finds some­one he loves still alive in a pile of corpses.

Such mo­ments are both im­plau­si­ble and dra­mat­i­cally limp. At­tempt­ing to make an atroc­ity palat­able to a main­stream au­di­ence, “The Prom­ise” de­liv­ers the his­tory, but un­der­cuts its im­pact.

PG-13. At area the­aters. Con­tains vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing war atroc­i­ties, and sex­ual sit­u­a­tions. In English, Ger­man and French with some sub­ti­tles. 133 min­utes.

JOSE HARO/OPEN ROAD FILMS

Chris­tian Bale, left, as an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and Oscar Isaac as an as­pir­ing doc­tor in “The Prom­ise.” In Terry Ge­orge’s film, a “Ti­tanic”-like love story un­folds against the hor­rors of mass killings.

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