"Remember the days when we buried people one by one and made a fuss about it?" So says the 17-year-old boy in Alexi Arbuzov's tale of love under fire. The Promise is all about the dreams of youth, even in the most dire circumstances, and the promise of a better tomorrow.
It's Leningrad, 1942, a city under siege. A young man, Marat, returns to his tiny bedsit to find a squatter. She is Lika, and according to Marat 'lucky' to have survived so far without him, so the two set about forging an existence amid the air raids in the derelict building. They are soon joined by Leonidik, and the displaced teenagers become a surrogate family unit. But three's a crowd, and although it's clear Marat and Lika are in love, he leaves to join up and Leonidik shortly follows, out of obligation. So the love triangle begins and we watch the developments in 1946 as the war ends, when Marat returns a hero, Leonidik with only one arm and finally in 1959.
Nick Dean's adaptation does well to include modern idiom with ease. While the mis en scène, courtesy of Bunny Christie is incredibly atmospheric and informative for each different 'time'. Director Nicholas Kent chooses to punctuate the scenes with short contemporary film montages, again perfectly evoking the age.
The performances are adequate from the trio of young actors who admirably try to depict the massive emotional development and scope their characters cover over 30 years. But despite an A for effort, they do not always succeed. Paul Nicholls is watchable, but lacks the charisma necessary to carry off the idealist hero Marat convincingly; while both Jenny Jones and Gyuri Sarossy are solid as Lika and Leonidik respectively, but they paint with too-broad strokes characters that need finer shading.
If the story is about hope, then it is only hope for the men. They both love Lika but she becomes a slave to both - for one, as a wife and nurse, for the other a fantasy. Even when her true love returns, there's little sense that anything will change, and the dreams of youth seem to be forever elusive.
Ultimately you're left feeling confused, empty, and slightly betrayed by The Promise which is never quite fulfilled.
- Hannah Khalil