Monday, February 28, 2011

Proper Serious Drama With a Message

Channel 4 must've busted the bank to get The Promise in the can, because Peter Kosminsky's era-hopping Israel/Palestine drama is a gorgeous, explosive epic; viewers, on the other hand, will be sorely out of pocket on plasters for their chafed and bruised backsides.

Clocking in at just under eight hours long, the story spans sixty years of Israeli history and boy, does it feel like it.  There are explosions!  And gunfights!  And more explosions, but also talking, and moody looks, and sulking, and then more sulking, and another explosion!

It's essentially an excellent four-hour drama stretched well beyond breaking point.  The plot threads split, following British soldier Len in mandate Palestine 1946-8, through his diaries as read by his gap-year holidaying granddaughter Erin in 2005 Israel. Len's story covers the formation of the Irgun and its battles with the occupying British army, up to the end of the mandate, while Erin's involves a lot of walking about, having things explained to her.

I can't fault Claire Foy's performance, since she does very well with a part that can be summarised as "Incredibly naive tourist is horrified by and complains at great length about unpleasant realities".  Nonetheless, it's the mandate-era scenes that drive the narrative and form the human core of the drama.  It's Christian Cooke - who is, by the way, stupendous here - as Len who gets the interesting storylines and the emotional heart of the tale.  His scenes in the final episode, when his failure to fulfil the titular promise is revealed, are heart-breaking.

As a drama, it has its problems.  The forties scenes thrive on a sense of impending doom as Len's attempts to do the right thing break down and he's failed or betrayed by all of his allies, but the modern day sequences are sloooooooow and taaaaaaaalllky.  The viewer is introduced to Israel/Palestine in all its awful complexity and contradictions, and Kosminsky sometimes struggles badly with the old adage Show, don't tell, opting to do both on more than one occasion.  I sympathise, since the show assumes that the viewer has stumbled into the conflict as clueless of its origins as his characters, and it's a supremely difficult situation to pin down in a couple of sentences.  Nonetheless, the film could've done with a damn good scissoring in the edit suite.

Still, it has successfully annoyed some of the internet's more entertaining madmen with its politics, and make no mistake - this isn't a general history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, any more than Exodus was an even-handed historical documentary.   This is unambiguously the story of the Palestinians' great disaster, as seen through the eyes of a disillusioned British soldier.

In tone and theme, it's more or less indistinguishable from Kosminsky's previous work Warriors, which focused on the experiences of British soldiers and civilians in the Bosnian war.  As in that series, the characters are either earnest witnesses struggling and, for the most part, failing to salvage some good from a rapidly-accelerating disaster; helpless victims of events or nasty, belligerent men of violence.

God help the switchboard staff at Channel Four, because the violent upheaval that led to the creation of Israel is all here, from the bombing of the King David to the Sergeants affair and the massacre at Deir Yassin, all of it onscreen in vibrant Technicolour.  That'd be enough to get them deluged even if there were regular harangues on the lunacies and atrocities of Fatah and Hamas, but the suicide bombings of the 2000s are swept away by  the bloody convulsion of 1948.

If that sounds like heavy viewing, the dense script certainly doesn't help.  Light entertainment this is not - I counted one joke and only a smattering of banter in eight hours, and can't even recall whether it was funny.  It is, without doubt, the most po-faced thing I've seen since The Dark Knight, a movie that was almost 100% po from start to finish.  The first episode opens with archive footage from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen and ends with a vicious terrorist attack, leaving the viewer in no doubt that this is very, very serious indeed, and it's all downhill from there.*

Nonetheless, Channel Four should be commended for making a big, messy, flashy historical drama of a sort that's rarely attempted in an era of reality bullshit and glorified karaoke.  With a little more editorial discipline, this could've been a barn-storming drama and the fact that it fails to reach those heights shouldn't blunt our admiration for the director's ambition.  When the awards season comes round, expect The Promise to pick up a rash of nominations in the Proper Serious Drama With a Message categories.

*God love the Great British public, though.  A glance at Twitter during screening showed that a large number of viewers enjoyed this grim, didactic and overpowering historical production on the grounds that the lead actor was gorgeous, and that there was occasional titty.  I find it oddly endearing that as a nation, we're capable of appreciating hard-hitting political drama via the medium of nipples and bums.

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