Full disclosure: I'm a Turkish critic writing a fairly negative review about a drama covering the Armenian genocide that took place during the early 20th Century in what was then called The Ottoman Empire. The negative points in this review are related to weaknesses in technical and storytelling execution found in The Promise. I'm not a denier of the Armenian genocide, and think it's a story that deserves to be told. There are innumerable amount of films about the Holocaust and various other similar atrocities; so good mainstream dramas about this subject are always more than welcome, "good" being the key word.
The main problem with The Promise is that it tries to mix the heart wrenching dramatic heft of Schindler's List with a Pearl Harbor-style gaudy love triangle melodrama, resulting in an unappetizing tonal sludge. The film was co-written and directed by Terry George, who shone light on the Rwandan genocide with the terrific Hotel Rwanda. Therefore, it makes sense for him to tell the story of the Armenian genocide. Just like Hotel Rwanda, The Promise is full of unflinching depictions of the atrocities one race performed on another just because of their culture, the way they looked, or the God they prayed to. The part of the story told from the point-of-view of an American journalist (Christian Bale) who's more and more disgusted as he uncovers The Ottoman Empire's plan to "cleanse" their country from Armenians is effective and works primarily as a delivery method of immediate empathy, as the audience is able to feel the pain of this horrid violence as experienced by an outsider.
If the screenplay focused entirely on Bale's character, we could have an Armenian version of Hotel Rwanda. But the addition of a flatly executed love triangle, between the journalist, his girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon), and an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) undermines the film's credibility as a somber drama about a real tragedy, as we're subjected to one maudlin romance sequence after the other. This problem intensifies with the obvious lack of chemistry between the three leads, and a very rare flat and lifeless performance by Isaac. If George couldn't even get a halfway passionate performance out of one of the best actors working today, he might as well have scrapped the whole project and started from scratch.
I wish I could say that at least the epic ambitions of the project resulted in pretty and awe-inspiring cinematography to cover for the lack of focused storytelling and dull performances, but things are not looking up on the technical side either. The evenly lit digital photography makes what was supposed to be an ambitious cinematic experience look like a low-rent BBC drama from the late 80s. The special effects work is embarrassingly bad, with some green screen shots barely above The Room-quality.
The Promise could have actually benefitted from being watched on a VHS transfer, since the blurry look could cover up the film's technical weaknesses. This 1080p presentation is crisp, clear, and very loyal to the digital source, which is kind of the problem.
The DTS-HD 7.1 track has a lot of range, even though the surround channels don't get much action except during the overbearing score. Some of the action sequences, like a fairly gripping escape from a concentration camp, come to life while listening through a surround system. Otherwise, you'll be fine watching it via regular TV speakers.
Commentary by Terry George and Producer Eric Esrailian: This is an informative commentary track that goes over the many details of the production.
Deleted Scenes: Six minutes of deleted material that can be skipped. They don't add much to the finished product.
The Love Story: A glorified trailer where the cast talk about the worst element of the film.
War and Struggle: Another glorified trailer, this one about the war that surrounds the story.
A Cause: A 3-minute piece focusing on the genocide itself.
If you're really interested in learning more about the Armenian genocide and want a passionately told story about it, you can rent The Promise, skip most of the scenes with Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon, and spend around an hour with the Christian Bale sequences. That's not enough, I know, but this is all we have on the subject until a better film of this scale comes along.