Drexel University hosted the American premiere of “The Promise” Feb. 3 in the URBN Annex screening room. The romantic drama is set in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, which occurred parallel to World War I.
Our protagonist Michael (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian apothecary from a rural village in the mountains of Anatolia, who becomes engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a woman from a wealthy family, so he can use the dowry to pay for attendance at the imperial medical school. During his time in school she stays behind, but while in Constantinople, Michael meets the beautiful Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a well-traveled Armenian who is in a relationship with American reporter Christopher Myers (Christian Bale). Together they experience the rising tension between Turks and Armenians and its eruption into one of the genocides less known to the American public.
The cast performs excellently and with deep emotion. The use of a few lesser-known actors is welcomed and gives the characters their proper space. The romance and tragedy is on full display; for example, it is particularly wise is that Christian Bale has limited screen time. Though independently funded, the drama matches any big-budget Hollywood film in this regard, as do the production values.
Costumes and scenery make the Ottoman world come alive and help to identify the distinction between decadent Constantinople and the backward Anatolian hinterlands. A modest amount of CGI enhances Spain, Portugal and Malta to be a very believable stand-in for Turkey. With the Turkish government’s continuing denial of the genocide, it is understandable that filming on location was out of the question.
It’s clear that everyone involved felt the time was ripe for a big film treatment of the Armenian genocide, but though the result is thoroughly enjoyable, it suffers from lack of depth. It is far closer to “Titanic” than “Schindler’s List.” For instance, not once does the film explore why the Turks persecute the Armenians, but instead it leaves the Turks of the film distinctly flat. They are either representatives of an evil empire or, for reasons also unstated, secretly support the Armenians instead. It is hoped that American audiences fully appreciate the film and encourage more ambitious films about the Armenian genocide to explore its meaning further.
Nevertheless, if evaluated as a typical Hollywood epic, the film succeeds on all the standard marks. It has exotic locations and costumes, a love triangle, protagonists that persevere through cruel hardships — and of course, most of the characters don’t make it to the end. Cut down from its original three hours to a manageable 134 minutes, it makes for a great night out.
The screening was organized by the Pennoni Honors College in cooperation with the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Honors students had the unique opportunity to sit down with producer William Horberg and Dean of the honors college, Paula Marantz Cohen, before the show. Hornberg, who briefly spoke about the long history of creating such a film despite Turkish government opposition, also took questions from the audience afterward.
The general public will have to wait until April 28 for the film to be released.