The Promise, by Peter Kosminsky

Channel 4’s showpiece drama presents a revealingly limited portrayal of Palestine.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on March 29, 2011

Broken Promised Land. Television review – Tom Jennings
This four-part miniseries broadcast on Channel 4 in February cements writer-director Peter Kosminsky’s abandonment of pseudo-docudrama for purportedly realistic fictions of recent events – beginning with homegrown jihadists in Britz (reviewed in Freedom , 2nd February 2008). This equally woefully clunky but rather more ambitious attempt to capture the tones and tenors of individual and institutional pathology afflicting the world parachutes into Palestine at crucial stages in its history, attempting a very rare mainstream Western media account of the continuing catastrophe of the Middle East. The Promise combines a double bill of whistlestop tours set in the 1940s and now, ticking as many appropriate documentary boxes as possible about the conflictual occurrences and patterns in both periods which have rendered the political prognosis so intractably tangled and compromised throughout Israel’s history. And, despite wildly unlikely coincidences and connections driving the plots forward, Kosminsky at least manages remotely accurate snapshots of and insights into the injuries and indignities suffered by the region’s inhabitants over six decades.
The whole farrago is watchable thanks to its 1940s backstory following one English soldier’s postwar progression from liberating Nazi death camps to a Palestine posting in the British ‘Mandate’ occupation between 1923-48, which ended in disarray after organised Jewish settlers evicted or killed many thousands of Arabs to facilitate Israel’s establishment. Len’s initial deep charitable sympathy for Holocaust victims is steadily eroded by the Irgun’s dual guerilla campaign against the military administration and ruthless ethnic cleansing. Finally relinquishing affiliation with the supposedly neutral ‘peacekeeping’ role propagandised by top brass and governments, he deserts to help people he has befriended escape. Having read his journals, his granddaughter Erin strives to symbolically complete that unfinished quest, protected by an utterly unbelievable relationship with an elite Israeli family whose ambivalent soft liberalism both stands for Jewish progressivism in general and somehow tolerates her sullen presence.
Neither narrative thread mentions the underlying geopolitical, diplomatic and economic agendas which have dominated the situation developing along its trajectory and to which all participants have been constrained to adapt.* Instead the focus rests entirely on the visiting protagonists’ ethical quandaries and their attempts to square what they see and can(not) understand or do. Interestingly, here, Len’s character is sympathetic, whereas Erin’s clueless middle-class adolescent behaves on whim careless of resulting risk for everyone, including herself. The gratuitous vulnerable pathos of her being epileptic, however, represents more than a forlorn appeal to viewers to care. Doubtless unintended by Kosminsky, and naturally unnoticed by critics, her blundering around sundry hotspots ignoring the interests or opinions of locals in favour of private desires – dotted with periodic fits of humanitarian impulse and seizures of moral outrage – uncannily mirrors the structure of single issue hobbyism and ‘struggle tourism’ as well as official news coverage and its respectable reception. So, despairing at horrors endured by distant others, comfortable Western handwringers move onto newly fashionable concerns – never taking seriously, sustaining, or prioritising above self-satisfaction the grassroots perspectives and efforts which have meaningful potential either at home or overseas.
*For the modern history see, for example, Noam Chomsky’s meticulous The Fateful Triangle (1983) and his subsequent updates in various publications - including here:
The Promise
is out now on DVD.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 6, March 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: