In the first episode, gap year student Erin (Claire Foy) helps her mum clear out her dying grandfather’s house. Erin finds a dusty diary where pages of crawly black ink chart his time in the British army; first liberating Bergen-Belsen and later overseeing the settlement of European immigrant Jews in Palestine.
Coincidentally, Erin has been invited by her Israeli-passport-holding friend Eliza to spend the summer in her parents’ dreamy Tel Aviv beach house while she begins her military service. Erin smells gentle adventure and accepts, still clutching granddad’s chilling memoir. She’s geared up merely for months spent basking in the pool breathing in orange-infused sea air. But there’s a learning curve on the horizon and it’s getting close fast.
Decades earlier, her grandfather Len (Christian Cooke) was stationed in Palestine helping to bundle newly arrived Jews into holding camps. Len, like many British troops assigned to the task, is quietly outraged, having just come from liberating a concentration camps. He saw up close how Jews had been treated in confinement, so to shove them back into prisons (even if these ones weren’t extermination factories) feels treacherous.
We’re there with Len as he learns what the region and its chaotic politics will mean for the Jewish people as well as the Palestinians, and for the newly stationed British military. It’s not a perspective we’re used to seeing. As well as a searing slab of fact-fed fiction (without question it’s the drama of the year, and I don’t care if I sound annoyingly excitable by proclaiming this in February), The Promise is an education. Both Erin and her grandfather arrive in the region full of hope (for a fun holiday and a new home for a brutalised people, respectively), but as soon as the land’s complexities make themselves known, granddaughter and grandfather reassess.
Cutting between eras without making the audience feel seasick, or producing parallels that are too neatly packaged, is hard work. But Kosminsky mashes up two ages masterfully, and points out comparisons that don’t feeling contrived or patronising. You sense that he’s also eager to appear unbiased, as if he were making a documentary. So he give all interested parties, and their experiences, generous airtime. The Promise doesn’t take sides: it’s neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israeli, and for that reason it’s bound to rile extremists on both sides.
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