Monday, 26 June 2017

Movie Review: The Promise (2017)

Even without getting into the premise of today’s film, this has the kind of main casting that is designed to make audiences froth in excitement. You’ve got Oscar Isaac, a true rising star who has been attached to critical and audience darlings for several years straight at this point and has even entered meme status thanks to his… interesting dance sequence from Ex Machina. Next to him, there’s Charlotte Le Bon, whom I’ll admit hasn’t exactly wowed me with her latest features, but quite frankly, she’s more than due for a proper-good production. And then there’s Christian Bale, the modern king of method acting who is well-known by this point for how seriously he takes his work. As much as I know better than I’d like how easily a promising cast can be cut down by a wasteful story, rest assured, this isn’t one of those occasions. This is The Promise.

The plot: Budding doctor Mikael (Oscar Isaac) travels to Constantinople to start his medical training. While there, he meets dancer Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and her partner Chris (Christian Bale), an American journalist reporting on the Armenian-Turkish conflict going on at the time. As open hostilities continue to escalate, and Mikael and Chris find themselves thrown even deeper into the conflict, the three of them need to find a way to get out of the country before things get worse.

In light of my opening spiel, it is seriously relieving that the cast here is as strong as it is, and not just from our main cast. Oscar Isaacs is brilliant, managing his character’s endless stream of tragedies remarkably well while also channelling virtue without it coming across as melodramatic. Well, not melodramatic to the point of being ineffective, at least. Le Bon, while admittedly hideously miscast as an Armenian (something that even the film itself can’t help but poke holes into), still does very well alongside her co-stars and just showing raw emotion on her own. Bale is fantastic too, playing a man-of-action war journalist who manages to wield his character’s conviction without having the fact that he is playing an American detract from the Armenians and their struggle. Jean Reno plays a French military officer, because of course he does, Marwan Kenzari as Mikael’s friend Emre gives a very solid perspective to the story as a Turk roped into the war against his will, James Cromwell as a U.S. ambassador only gets a single scene but he absolutely nails it and possibly steals the show from the already incredible cast around him, and Rade Šerbedžija, again in a small role, gives a rousing performance as the mayor of an Armenian village who becomes a galvanizing force for good. As you’ll see when I get further into this, that’s a bit of a theme with the characters here.

It’s a war film, so I hope you like disturbing and harrowing-as-fuck imagery because this film’s got it in spades. Selecting a lesser-known conflict (the Armenian genocide) within a war that doesn’t get as much coverage as its younger Nazi-soaked sibling already puts this film in a nice niche amongst its contemporaries. However, it manages to go beyond that once the scale and scope of the whole event starts to come into focus. Starting out on Mikael’s slightly problematic goal of becoming a doctor (paid for through a marriage-of-convenience), the film’s willingness to show the terrors of war builds and builds rather steadily throughout, reaching a deafening roar once we get to scenes of mass slaughter and viciously underhanded actions taken by the Turkish officials. In fact, more than the stomach churns, it’s the breadth of the film’s gaze that’s really worthy of note. Even though this still focuses on a relatively small event in a far larger conflict, this film manages to bring that larger conflict into the film’s narrative without ever really deviating from that event. By isolating one part, it emphasizes the whole in a way that very few modern war films have managed.

But what about the love triangle? You know, that thing that Rotten Tomatoes apparently thought took precedent over the actual point of the story? Well, not only is it of a higher grade that I’ve been seeing in films lately, it’s also bolstered by how sharply defined the characters involved are. Mikael may have started off on a weird foot with the sham marriage for the dowry, but later on, his determination to make that very relationship work manages to balance it out. Not only that, as the war makes him lose more and more of the life he once had, his apparent want for vengeance never outweighs his want to help others. Ana, once properly set within the love triangle between Mikael and Chris, never gets invested in it to the point where it could result in far worse things happening. It’s strange that I should have to point this out, but her attachment to both men never ends up trumping her doing the right thing. Probably helps that what could be considered this film’s third-act-breakup is handled very refreshingly, as no party involved ends up letting their emotions override the far bigger problems at hand. And as for Chris, every time he showed up on-screen, I kept being reminded of a line from Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan: “Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim it right, that’s all you need. Aim it right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.” He ends up embodying that understanding of how powerful information can be, and why it should be reported on. As a result, he is shown risking death at numerous turns just to make sure that the story gets told. He also has a scene where he tells a few Turkish (and German) officials that they are up to no good to their faces, a moment that made me re-realize just how amazing an actor Christian Bale is with the right material. Between the three of them, and a few snippets of dialogue that seem to directly commentate on certain sillier moments in the film (such as a street fight where Ana tries attacking a Turkish soldier with heads of lettuce), they create a strong foundation for the film’s true purpose to shine through.

Back when I reviewed Our Kind Of Traitor, I was absolutely floored by the sheer sense of good that came from the characters and their actions; inspired is a severe understatement, upon leaving that screening. Honestly, I have much the same reaction here, except it seems to serve a far grander purpose this time around. Even with the inclusion of French, German and American characters, the focus always stays on the conflict between the Turks and the Armenians; specifically, how one hideously affects the existence of the other. Once Mikael is shown the full extent of the enemy’s cruelty, the sense of fighting against one’s oppressors starts to grow, embodied by numerous characters who are willing to give their lives just so that others may live. Now, given my railing against similar martyrdom in Silence earlier this year, this may sound a tad hypocritical on my part but here’s the thing: Being a martyr has actual purpose here. Rather than one’s feeling of pride or need to appease someone else, our protagonists operate mainly to prevent others from being killed. It’s altruism that does lead to melodrama at times, considering the brutality and heightened emotion that gets juggled around for the last half of the film, but the acting keeps it from becoming too overblown. It also manages to carry a very specific song of pride throughout for the Armenian people, embodied in the film’s tonal whiplash of an epilogue. Yeah, it may feel out-of-place next to the tragedy that preceded it, but its intent still rings true and, considering the aforementioned lack of familiarity most audiences would have with this story, feels like it deserves to be seen. And quite frankly, this film is just that good that it indeed deserves to be seen.

All in all, this is truly powerful cinema. Thanks to a strong cast, where even the bit parts leave an indelible impression by film’s end, and writing that employs both well-defined characters and smooth pacing, this has all the sorrow and eventual hope and triumph that you should want from a war film. It’s kind of sad that this film is going down as weakly as it is, both commercially and critically, and even sadder that Armenian genocide deniers have been trying to further sabotage the film’s online reception, because I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It’s better than The Fate Of The Furious, as all the overblown 50-car pile-ups in the world can’t match something with this kind of emotional intensity. However, even though I really love the effort put into the characterization here, it still doesn’t wow me as much as the miracle work put into T2: Trainspotting. Making me like someone like Mikael? Easy. Making me like a beast like Franco Begbie? Now that is impressive.

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