The opening scenes of the 2011 British television mini-series The Promise, now available in the US via Hulu, feature grotesque, jarring footage of concentration camps recorded by British troops during liberation. They are images that we know well. Despite their familiarity, they never cease to both revolt and inspire empathy. The employment of these images in art is not a decision that is typically made lightly; it is the sort of choice that requires deep planning, as it is a slippery slope towards tastelessness and offense. Peter Kosminsky, writer and director of The Promise, knew exactly what he was doing when he incorporated the footage into the show’s opening. It is the one and only time the viewer emphasizes with Jews throughout the four-part series. Everything that comes after it is shown as a symptom of a people who clearly believe that what happened to them gave them a free pass to be heartless, unsympathetic, needlessly cruel, and prejudiced.
The show time-shifts between two characters: Len Matthews (played by Christian Cooke), a sergeant serving in British-controlled Palestine in 1946, and his granddaughter Erin (Claire Foy) in the present day, who is reading her grandfather’s story in his diary, chasing the people and places that appear in the pages.
Let’s get the aesthetic stuff out of the way first: as a work of television drama, The Promise is a brilliantly shot, impressive example of the art form. The serial was filmed entirely on location, with Israel displayed as a land of enormous beauty and charm in the present day, and as a raw land of upheaval and violence in the 1940s. It’s well acted, particularly by Cooke, who channels a little of Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence, adeptly oscillating between stoic, distraught, love struck, and rapturously violent. The show switches between the two time periods effortlessly, and weaves the stories together in a way that feels natural and comfortable.
In a thrilling era of television dramas that are constantly one-upping each other in terms of quality, depth, and boundary-pushing (I’m looking at you Breaking Bad, West Wing, The Wire), it’s an impressive feat to have no qualms with the quality of a serial’s storytelling. And if The Promise was about, say, Norse mythology or horse racing, and not about revising Israel’s history, then it’d be a knockout. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Leave it to the filmmaker’s bias to ruin a good time.
To put it as simply as I can: there is a distinct and severely skewed point of view in The Promise, and, unusually, it does not necessarily lean to pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli tenets. Instead, The Promise is decidedly anti-Israeli—the people, not the country. Israelis are routinely displayed as an ignorant, cruel, and deeply hateful people. At times there seems to be a logical formula to the way Israelis are depicted throughout the show. Something along the lines of “for every shot featuring a scared, harmed, or sad-eyed Palestinian, let there follow a shot with a scowling, hunched Israeli, wringing his hands, plotting evil.”
The emotion that the viewer may feel in watching The Promise is almost exclusively staged. There are no organic feelings, only pre-bottled emotions applied generously to overtly sentimental shots. It is a blatant attempt at shifting blame to a side of an argument which has no obvious correct answer. If Kosminsky had introduced The Promise as a work of pure fiction, taking place in an altogether different universe, then no real damage may have been done. Instead, as an attempt at fairness, at truthful history, the show is a complete sham.
Kosminsky paints a portrait of an Israel that is exceptionally simple-minded, favoring stark blacks and whites over grays. It is an Israel in which Israelis are to blame exclusively for the poor welfare of Palestinians today, in which suicide bombings are the faults of the victims who are killed in them, and in which mindless soldiers perpetuate war crimes. There is truth to some of what The Promise portrays: the IDF have done their share of unspeakable things, as the show never ceases to remind the viewer. But to tell the story in such as way that there is a clear villain and a clear victim—that is to relegate The Promise to the ranks of all too many other hateful, inaccurate, and vitriolic depictions of the state of Israel. It becomes something not even worth talking about.
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