Promise (2017)

“There must be another way,” says Abe (Nabil Elouahabi) in Promise. “He was our child.”

Abe and his wife Sarah (Rebecca Callard) have been trying to have a baby for years, but Sarah lacks progesterone, and has recently miscarried. So the interracial couple makes a reciprocal agreement with Syrian refugee Hajar (Lara Sawalha): if she will carry Abe’s child, they will offer her asylum in their house. At first Sarah resents being displaced by the surrogate mother who has come between her and Abe, but then circumstances change unexpectedly, and Sarah – quickly, callously and entirely unnecessarily – seeks a way to terminate the fragile contract, in the process discarding the very fabric of her home.

In this modern retelling of the Old Testament story of childless Sarah, Abram and their handmaiden Hagar (Genesis 16), the menage à trois, though coming with the promise of hope, is also an uneasy relationship of convenience, creating a precarious domestic arrangement. One can discern here an allegory of the bad faith in Britain’s broader treatment of those (like, e.g., the Windrush generation) who come here to improve their prospects, only to find that the supposedly mutual exploitation promised them was in fact never drawn up on equal terms.

Hannah Lee’s script pivots around not just reciprocities but repetitions, as key scenes, even specific snatches of dialogue, reiterate each other in slightly altered form, like non-identical twins or half siblings. Following Bricks (2015), Ghosted (2016) and Lock In (2016), this is the fourth short film to be directed by film critic Neville Pierce, who handles the echoes and asymmetries with a subtle economy, while ensuring that any expectation of a better future is haunted by a deep sense of loss, guilt and recrimination, pervading the film from beginning to end.

© Anton Bitel