The Promise is a 2016 American historical drama film directed by Terry George and starring Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale, set in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The film premiered on September 11, 2016, at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released in the United States on April 21, 2017, by Open Road Films.
The Promise is about a love triangle that develops between Armenian medical student Mikael (Isaac), an American journalist based in Paris named Chris (Bale) and an Armenian-born woman raised in France, Ana (Le Bon), during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and during the Armenian Genocide. The film was a box office bomb, grossing just $8 million against its $90 million budget, although the studio noted the main purpose of the film was to bring attention to the story, not make money.
Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an apothecary who lives in the small Armenian village of Sirun in the southeast part of the Ottoman Empire. In order to help pay the expenses for medical school, he promises himself to the daughter of an affluent neighbor, receiving 400 gold coins as a dowry. This allows him to travel to Constantinople and attend the Imperial Medical Academy.
There, he befriends Emre, the son of a high-level Turkish official. Through his wealthy uncle Mikael also meets Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), an Armenian woman raised in Paris, who is involved with an American reporter for the Associated Press, Chris Myers (Christian Bale). In due course, Mikael falls in love with Ana just as international tensions begin to rise with the outbreak of World War I. Mikael temporarily manages to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army through a medical student exemption with the help of Emre. But when he tries to save his uncle from imprisonment during the roundups of April 24, 1915, he is detained and sent to a prison labor camp himself.
Mikael eventually escapes the camp, returning to his village only to find the Turks have violently turned on their Armenian fellow townspeople. His parents, and particularly his mother, persuade him to marry his betrothed and seek refuge in a remote mountain cabin where she soon becomes pregnant. A difficult pregnancy leads Mikael to bring his wife back to the care of his mother in the village. There he learns that Ana and Christopher are at a nearby Red Cross facility and he goes to seek their help for his family to escape the imminent Turkish threat.
Departing the mission with a group of orphans, they head back to Sirun to retrieve Mikael's family. Along the way, however, they encounter a site of a massacre, as it becomes clear all of Sirun's inhabitants, including Mikael's family, save his mother, have been killed by Turkish troops. Chris is captured by Ottoman troops and sent back to Constantinople, charged with being a spy and slated for execution by authorities; with the help of Emre, and through the intercession of American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, he is released and allowed to depart for Malta. Once there, he boards the French cruiser Guichen, as it prepares to set sail along the Ottoman coast. For helping Chris, Emre is executed by firing squad.
Escaping pursuit, Mikael, Ana, and the orphans join a large group of refugees determined to fight off the Ottoman army on Musa Dagh. As they fend off repeated assaults, Mikael's mother succumbs to her wounds and is buried on the mountain. The refugees hold on long enough to escape on the back side to the coast as the Guichen comes to their rescue. But as the launches return to the ship, a Turkish artillery barrage throws Ana and Yeva, the young daughter of Mikael's uncle, overboard. Mikael jumps in after them and is able to rescue Yeva but Ana drowns.
In a voice over, Mikael recounts that he adopted Yeva and together they settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. During Yeva's wedding reception in 1942, with the Armenian orphans who have now grown up in attendance, Mikael presides over a toast, wishing good fortune to their families and the generations to come.
Filming began in Autumn 2015 in Portugal, Malta, and Spain, with the shooting scheduled to last until December. Reshoots took place in New York in May and June 2016, ending in early June.
The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2016. Shortly after, Open Road Films acquired distribution rights to the film, and set an April 28, 2017, release date. The release date was later changed to April 21, 2017.
In the United States and Canada, The Promise opened alongside Unforgettable, Born in China, Free Fire and Phoenix Forgotten, and was projected to gross around $5 million from 2,251 theaters in its opening weekend. It ended up debuting to $4.1 million, finishing 9th at the box office. Deadline.com attributed the low opening to the lack of critical support and the film being released in the spring to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, instead of in the fall during award season.
The film would go on to have a final gross of just $8.2 million, far below its $90 million production budget. However, Open Road's president of marketing Jonathan Helfgot said the film's goal was not purely money related, saying: "[While] we certainly hoped for a better box office result ... It was about bringing the world's attention to this issue. And looking at the amount of conversation ... it's undeniable that there's been more focus and attention in the past two weeks than the past hundred years since the atrocity took place."
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 47% based on 110 reviews, with an average rating of 5.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Promise wastes an outstanding cast and powerful real-life story on a love triangle that frustratingly fails to engage." On Metacritic the film has a score of 49 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale.
Benjamin Lee of The Guardian gave the film 3 stars (out of 5) and called it an "often soapy but well-intentioned and extravagantly mounted epic." Pietro A. Shakarian, writing for The Nation, gave a more favorable review: "The Promise captures the magnitude of this history in a way that no prior film on the genocide has done before. With its sweeping cinematography, powerful acting, and all-encompassing story, it is a truly epic work that effectively and humanely conveys the story of the tragedy." Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying: "Yes, The Promise veers into corny territory, and yes, it’s derivative of better war romances — but it’s a solid and sobering reminder of the atrocities of war, bolstered by strong performances from Isaac and Bale, two of the best actors of their generation."
Ara Sarafian, director of the Gomidas Institute in London and a leading historian of the Armenian Genocide, praised the film for its historical accuracy. "The key themes were historically accurate," he said. "The producers did not take license to go beyond the historical material at hand yet they managed to capture much of the enormity of the Armenian genocide." Sarafian also commended director Terry George for his "well balanced and creditworthy" sense of history.
Harout Kassabian of The Armenian Weekly said the film will help the world recognize the trauma of the genocide as it has long been felt by Armenians: "The personal connection developed with the characters helps deepen the empathy felt by the audience."
By the end of October 2016, before its official release and after only three pre-release screenings in September 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival to small audiences, IMDb had registered over 86,000 ratings for the film. 55,126 of which were one-star and 30,639 of which were 10-star, with very few ratings falling anywhere in between. The majority of these votes had been cast by males outside of the US. By mid-November the total was over 91,000 votes, with over 57,000 one-star votes. Commentators assessed that these were mostly votes by people who had never seen the film, and that the one star voting was part of an orchestrated campaign by Armenian Genocide deniers to downrate the movie, which had then initiated an Armenian response to highly rate the movie. At the time of its American release the film had a 5.5/10 from 129,241 votes, and currently holds a rating of 5.9/10 based on 149,638 votes. Grassroots attempts to fight against false ratings have gone viral, including a video by Harvard student Michael He that has received 300,000 views.
Numerous celebrities reacted positively to the movie, including the Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez, Sylvester Stallone, Barbara Streisand, Sir Elton John, Alexis Ohanian, Dean Cain, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cher, and Kim Kardashian.
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