Monday, July 14, 2014

The Promise

Over the last few days we've watched the four episodes of Peter Kosminsky's TV film: The Promise. Like much of Kosminsky's TV work, it's quite provocative, and your sympathies change as the story unfolds.

Two stories interweave: one is set in Palestine just after the Second World War. A young sergeant is caught up in the historic events of the time, when the British were keeping the peace - as far as possible - between the new Jewish settlers who'd returned to their homeland after the horrors of the concentration camps, and the Palestinians who had lived in the area for centuries and were suddenly finding themselves kicked out of their country by a people who apparently forgot, very quickly, what it was like to be treated badly because of who you were.

The second story is set in the present day: the Sergeant is now an old man dying in a hospital. His unsympathetic daughter and his granddaughter (who's barely known the supposedly grumpy old man) set about clearing out his house. The daughter, Erin, finds the old man's diary, with photos and newspaper clippings. Against her mother's orders, she keeps the diary, and takes it with her to Israel where she's going with a friend whose Israeli background means she has to go into the Army for two years. Erin is a typical know-all teenager who begins to find out a great deal more about the Israel-Palestine conflict than she would ever have learned in her native country, and also matures quickly as a result of trying to repair something that had gone wrong back when her grandfather was a young man.

The two stories gradually cohere. There are perhaps too many coincidences in the plotting, and the filmmakers slide over some questions about motivations that probably should have been asked, but for all that the film carries you along as you increasingly struggle - like Erin - to make sense of a country where a people who were hated almost universally for centuries (the Jews) and then were slaughtered in their millions, show almost no care or concern for a people who by accident live in the country the Jews claim as their homeland.

Kosminsky doesn't offer us easy answers: we begin by thinking that the Israelis are a pretty reasonable bunch of people, but gradually discover - as both the grandfather and the granddaughter do - that they have almost no sympathy for the Palestinians, and show little concern about killing them or destroying their property if the need, or mood, arises. Try as you might, by the end of the movie, it's likely your opinion of the Israeli people may be much less sympathetic than at first. Whether this is a more one-sided view on Kosminsky's part than is fair is left to our judgement.

Claire Foy plays the initially sulky teenager with ease - there are times when you want to wipe that sulky look off her face, even late in the film. Nevertheless, she makes the journey from sulkiness to a degree of wisdom effectively. Christian Cooke, as the Sergeant, has a face that often makes it look as though he's going to burst into tears, yet he convinces us that he's a man who can make wise decisions, is loyal, is strong in a crisis, and much more. He's particularly strong in his last scenes when everything he's tried to do for a Palestinian family goes wrong, and he's treated as a deserter and thrown into prison.

The rest of the enormous cast are superb, and with the film shot entirely in Israel (with places standing in for Hebron, Gaza, and the West Bank. Even the Ben Gurion airport stands in for Heathrow. The series in general received high praise when first shown, though there were a number of voices claiming that it was anti-semitic in tone, something which can be justified, if that's what you're looking for.

Since writing this review I've become more aware of the concerns that were raised over Kosminsky's series. This article goes into detail about these and provides some balance to the way in which Kosminsky nudges his viewers more and more into an anti-Israeli bias.

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