The Promise Review
2005. Erin Matthews (Claire Foy) is a gap-year student who travels to Israel when her friend Eliza (Perdita Weeks) is called up to do her national service. Erin and her mother had cleared out the house of Erin's dying grandfather Len and finds his diary of his experiences in what was then Palestine between 1945 and 1948. Although Eliza's parents seem to lead a happy and luxurious life, Erin's eyes are soon opened to the realities of the political situation. As she reads Len's diary, she retraces his steps...and we follow Len (played by Christian Cooke) in flashback.
One of British television's longest-standing and proudest traditions is the drama that explicitly tackles social and political issues. This has its roots in the single plays of of the Sixties and Seventies (such as the Wednesday Play and later Play for Today), which nurtured writers such as Dennis Potter and David Mercer, directors such as Ken Loach and writer/directors such as Mike Leigh and Stephen Poliakoff. More recently, the “authored” single serial (or miniseries if you prefer) has seemed a beleaguered species, at a time when too many people are keen to laud American television drama as a stick to bash British drama with. (I'm old enough to remember when the British were proud of their homegrown TV drama and US product – of which there was more on terrestrial channels then than now – was for the most part regarded as at best trashy guilty pleasures.) At worst, such issue-led drama is no more than worthy, but we still make the likes of State of Play, Bodies and Red Riding, to name just three examples I've watched over the last few years.
Peter Kosminsky, who began in documentary and has more recently written his plays and serials as well as directing them, has specialised in this genre. He has tackled such themes as child abuse (1997's No Child of Mine, a first leading role for Brooke Kinsella), the war in former Yugoslavia (Warriors, 1999), the life and death of murdered aid worker Sean Devereux (The Dying of the Light, 1992), the David Kelly affair (The Government Inspector, 2005) and the lives of British Muslims (Britz, 2007). His two cinema features, a decade apart, are uncharacteristic: a 1992 adaptation of Wuthering Heights with Ralph Fiennes and a badly miscast Juliette Binoche, and 2002's White Oleander, which I haven't seen.
The Promise is nothing if not ambitious: a four-episode, six-hour serial told over two timelines with a very large cast, filmed entirely in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Even the brief scenes set in England were filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the latter's airport doubling for Heathrow. We follow two timelines and two emotional journeys, that of Erin in 2005 and that of Len six decades earlier. This structure is expertly managed, as we follow Len's story at the same pace as Erin does. Early on, Erin finds the grave of a man mentioned in Len's diaries as a friend and realises that this is a death she hasn't yet read about. Needless to say this is a tough watch at times, but it's also a moving one, and the drama, despite some plot contrivances, grips throughout. The acting is uniformly excellent and Kosminsky, shooting in Super 16mm (not HD – see below for more about this) makes fine use of long takes and handheld cameras.
Of course, a drama like this comes up against the age-old question of balance. There's no doubt this is a story seen through British eyes – some dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew are deliberately left unsubtitled – but Kosminsky gives time to both sides, and is clearly condemnatory of the violence practised by both. Len, having been at the liberation of Belsen, begins in clear sympathy with the Jews but by the end of the story he questions the value of a state given its violence and cruelty. And certainly, if a drama like this makes you think and learn more, then that's (part of its) job done – and I confess to being far from an expert on this subject matter. The Promise is a story of connections between made, between people divided by race and religion – and between generations too, as Erin learns more about the life of a grandfather she has barely seen before now.
It's only February still as I write this, but The Promise looks set to be one of the UK television drama events of the year.
Viewers should be advised of two things. The opening episode contains archive footage of Belsen which will inevitably be distressing to many. Also, the first disc contains a warning that Episode One, sixteen minutes in, contains a two-minute scene in a nightclub which features strobe lighting. This is actually necessary to the story, as it is the first time we learn that Erin is epileptic, but susceptible viewers should take precautions. Parents should also be advised that there is also strong language and a couple of sexual scenes.
The Promise is released by Channel 4 DVD in both standard definition and Blu-ray. This is a review of the DVD edition, and the etailer links refer to that edition. For etailer links to the Blu-ray, go here. The Promise is also available with Britz and The Government Inspector as part of a box set, The Peter Kosminsky Collection - etailer links here.
The DVD edition comprises two DVD-9 discs, both encoded for Region 2 only. Episodes One and Two (running 81:21 and 86:57 respectively, selectable separately or as Play All) and the extras are on the first disc. The second disc contains Episode Three (82:46) and Episode Four (104:34), again with a Play All option.
As you would expect from a new television production, the intended aspect ratio is 1.78:1. The DVDs are in the correct ratio and are anamorphically enhanced. As I say above, the serial was shot in Super 16mm, but grain is soft and not obtrusive and blacks are solid. I watched the first two issues on (digital) TV broadcast and the last two on DVD, and the discs are am accurate representation of what I saw.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround (2.0). As seems to be the way with many television productions, the sound mix is not as immersive as many a 5.1 cinema production. It's more stereo than surround, and pretty much front and centre for much of it. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing. As I say above, brief snatches of Arabic and Hebrew are not translated.
The extras on Disc 1 begin with an audio commentary on Episode One, by Kosminsky and Peter Vogel. This is a very informative track – I ended up wanting more, though I accept that a six-hour commentary would be beyond the call of duty. The two men go into detail about the casting, the difficulties of a production shot entirely on location in the Middle East, not to mention the sensitivities of dealing with a multinational cast with everyone playing their own nationality. On a technical point (for those of us who like to know these things), they mention that they did consider filming digitally using the Red One camera (which captures at 4K resolution). However, they considered that Super 16mm dealt better with strong contrasts in light, this being a land with bright sunshine most of the year round. Erin's epilepsy was inspired by Kosminsky's daughter, herself living with the condition.
Kosminsky and Vogel also provide an optional commentary for some deleted scenes (6:59). These are presented in anamorphic 16:9, with the picture in a small box in the centre, with key numbers above and below. These are entirely un-post-produced, with no postdubbed sound. You can even see an actor standing in front of a blue screen. Director and producer discuss each scene, though the reasons they were deleted are the usual ones, mainly for pacing.
Also on the disc are two behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Filming in Israel for 2005” (14:34) and “Filming in Israel 1940s” (19:35). This is unnarrated footage of the production at work, though Claire Foy speaks to camera several times in the first one. Both follow the production chronologically – beware some plot spoilers.
The Blu-ray edition also has the following extras, which I'll mention but obviously can't review as they were not supplied to me. Running times are from the BBFC. They are: another “Behind the Scenes” (11:48), “Peter Kosminsky – Writer/Director” (11:12), “Meet the Cast 2005” (7:34), “Meet the 1940's Cast” (8:14) and “Paddy Eason – Nvizible” (about the visual effects, 5:40).