If there’s some way of meshing a soft-focus, star-crossed love story with a hard look at the ugliness of the Armenian genocide, the well-intentioned war drama “The Promise” doesn’t find it. The latest from director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) is simply too glossy to truly immerse audiences in the horrors it depicts. Even the film’s angsty romance doesn’t fully resonate, as edgy Oscar Isaac (“Ex Machina”) is challenged by awkwardly scripted earnestness, and Christian Bale makes an unconvincing rival for the woman torn between them.
It’s the eve of World War I, and we’re in a fez-filled provincial village on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire. Humble, hard-working Armenian druggist Mikael (Isaac) dreams of going to Constantinople to study proper medicine with the Turks — but how to pay his way? The answer comes in the form of the dowry for his arranged marriage to sweet, plain Maral (Angela Sarafyan, HBO’s “Westworld”). Mikael’s promise of the title is to get his degree, make an honorable return home, and settle down. For all his sincerity, we can see how that’s destined to go (although, curiously, this vow ends up being a secondary plot point).
Arriving in the city and lodging with wealthy relatives, Mikael meets their Armenian sitter, Ana (Charlotte Le Bon, “The Hundred-Foot Journey”), a kind-hearted, Sorbonne-educated beauty who charms him with her effervescence. She’s involved with American war correspondent Chris (Bale), but we know that she’s not completely committed, if only because of the weak narrative shorthand establishing their relationship. (Bale’s familiar freaky intensity doesn’t help to sell the story’s love triangle, even if he’s predictably effective playing a voice for moral outrage.)
No sooner do Mikael and Ana surrender to their feelings than the Turks enter the war and he’s marched off to a labor camp, one more execrated Armenian “traitor.” Although he eventually escapes his jailers, there’s no escaping escalating Turkish persecution, and character reunions that follow turn from bittersweet to perilous to tragic.
This trail at one point takes us past the scene of a mass execution in a moment typifying the romanticized drama’s frequent struggle to connect. Mikael howls in grief, spittle falling from his lip — and instead of purely feeling an empathetic chill, we’re just as occupied with how invested Isaac is, imperfectly cast or not. Even when showing atrocity up close, “The Promise” rarely makes us feel as if we’re doing anything more than watching from a distance.
Directed by Terry George. Written by George and Robin Swicord. Starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 132 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material including war atrocities, violence, and disturbing images; some sexuality).Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.