Based on a true story, Nick Condini takes an honest stab at a relationship that has gotten caught in the crosshairs of expectation and personal desire in his directorial debut, Promised.
Set against the backdrop of Melbourne in the 1970s, Promised tells the story of young Italian-Australians Robert (Daniel Berini) and Angela (Antoniette Iesue) who find themselves forced to marry thanks to a promise made between their fathers Joe and Sal (played by Mirko Grillini and Paul Mercurio respectively) some twenty years before. It’s this promise, the ‘combinare’ custom as the narration explains, that causes much strife for the young leads as they are effectively driven to marriage by outdated expectations.
Angela, a beautiful young woman with an active social life and commitment to her university studies, is your typical modern woman of the times. Fully aware of the promise made on her behalf, Angela shows little concern for the machinations of her community’s patriarchs. It’s just the way things are. Despite her understanding nature, Angela’s feminist literature and generally blasé attitude towards these archaic traditions paints her as being independent, forward thinking and almost radical for a girl from a close-knit Italian Catholic community.
At first glance our male lead, Robert, appears incredibly adventurous and driven. In a flashback to Angela’s teen years we see a young Robert about to embark on his studies abroad at Oxford. In the present day he has just returned, a successful graduate and the pride of his immigrant parents. Upon his return to Australia we see through his interactions with his family, friends and with Angela, that he is actually missing all the qualities that made him seem attractive in the first place – where those qualities should be is an unwavering need to do only what is expected of him.
Despite lengthy protests from Angela and a mild apathy from Robert, the pair are eventually married and now face the hardships of navigating marriage and life with someone they barely know.
Promised has all the ingredients of a good Australian rom-com, however with none of the execution to make those ingredients truly work and unfortunately, at every possible corner, it falls short of its goal. The characterisation of Angela and Robert feels torn from a lesser John Green novel; while trying to appear 3-dimensional the pair simply come off as irritating. Angela’s back-and-forth between resentment and acceptance of the life she’s been force fed reeks like a blossoming case of Stockholm Syndrome, while Robert’s insistence that he can make Angela happy in spite of her never having been in favour of their marriage is simply distasteful and misogynistic.
Lending to these issues is a script that would have benefited immensely from a pair of fresh eyes and a red pen. Condini’s dialogue feels too heavy, not in tone but in content, and often leaves his actors saying words and phrases that just don’t roll cleanly off the tongue. In a pivotal scene in which the couple argue, Angela’s heartfelt declaration that her feelings have been “completed erased by [Robert’s] deception” and questionings of whether she would “in time… meekly surrender” to her husband, feel less like the emotionally charged responses of a trapped woman and more like the words someone would use when they’ve been preparing responses in the back of their mind for an argument they’re planning to incite later on.
Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the chemistry between the two leads. In many cases bad scripts can prevail on the backs of great actors, but sadly Iesue and Berini often go back and forth between natural and completely forced, which would feel representative of their characters if it weren’t so uncomfortable to watch. Awkward pauses in the dialogue often puncture their scenes together, leaving their relationship feeling unnatural and unbelievable. The screen presence of Condini’s supporting cast also leaves a lot to be desired, with the only character to not appear completely puppet-like being Angela’s mother Rosalba (played with genuine heart by Tina Arena).
The one saving grace of Promised is its wonderful set and costume design executed perfectly by PD Sean Dennis and costume designer Aphrodite Kondos to encapsulate the defining elements of each era. For those nostalgic for the colour and character of the 70s, the pitfalls of Promised won’t be so bothersome. Those looking for an engaging Australian film akin to 2018’s runaway hit Ali’s Wedding should give this one a miss.