London, (Pal Telegraph) – The Promise sets a turbulent and moving love story against the backdrop of the world’s most complex, tragic and intractable conflict – that between Israel and Palestine. It is set in two timeframes – Israel today, and the British Mandate period after the Second World War, just before the modern state of Israel was created. At that time British soldiers were trying to keep the peace as the trickle of Jews into the region became a flood of desperate humanity after The Holocaust.
Peter Kosminsky has won several BAFTAs for dramas that faithfully recreate factual events, often with much controversy attached. The Promise is fiction, although Peter still conducted rigorous research into the background of the piece, and historical events shape the story. The idea for The Promise began after Peter received a letter from an old soldier who had served in Palestine.
‘He’d seen Warriors and was moved by how we told the stories of our soldiers in Bosnia. He suggested we should look at the Mandate period. I discovered many of these soldiers felt like Vets returning from Vietnam – shunned for being involved in an embarrassing failure. I saw a chance to shed light on a little-known aspect of British history, as well as an accessible way into a drama about the Middle East,’ he says.
That letter led Peter and his team to research the stories of over 70 former servicemen who had served in Palestine. He discovered they experienced the high of the relief and celebration for Jews arriving to claim a homeland after the Holocaust. But they also experienced the lows of the violent birth of the modern state of Israel. The soldiers found themselves caught between Jews and Arabs. They became victims themselves – particularly of the violent acts of terrorism carried out by the Irgun – the Jewish militants determined to establish a homeland at any price. Peter found most of the British soldiers he spoke to started with immense sympathy for the idea of a homeland for Jews but were much disillusioned by the end of their time in Palestine. He used their testimony to create Len, a regular army sergeant serving with the Paras in Haifa.
Although Peter covers some key political events in the drama, it is a story of human relationships, love and betrayal. His central character is Erin, Len’s granddaughter, who visits Israel in her gap year to spend time with her friend Eliza. While she is awakened to the political situation, she also goes on an emotional journey as she builds a relationship with her grandfather through reading his diary of his time in Palestine.
‘I was interested in the idea of a young girl who has difficulty in seeing the young man inside the shell of an old person. Erin starts out bored by Len but she falls in love with the 22-year-old version of her grandfather by reading his interior monologue in his diary,’ says Peter.
But tackling the subject of the Middle East in drama is inherently controversial. Does Kosminsky think he will divide opinions with this piece?
‘This is first and foremost a drama. I wanted to take two characters on a journey – starting pro-Jewish but then becoming less certain, in keeping with the thrust of our research. There are no caricatures – all the characters are based on people we met, read about or interviewed. One character is a soldier who was in Belsen, another is an Arab thrown out of his village in 1948. It would do an immense disservice to a complex situation to attempt to over-simplify it. I’m not attempting to be definitive. It’s not a comment piece. It would short-change the viewer to tell them what to think in a simplistic way.’
On the Middle East, Kosminsky prefers not to have a label slapped on him, but on his own country, Britain, he is unsparing.
‘The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the central fault line of our age. It’s 60 years old. It’s to the shame of the great powers that they still haven’t managed to resolve it. Britain is not innocent in this situation. We were the colonial power. It was for us to leave Palestine in good order. But Britain was bankrupt after a long war and focussed on the decolonisation of India. We found a quick fix and left. Those who live there are still, daily, dealing with the consequences.’
Peter accepts there will be debate over the political themes of The Promise, but he wants viewers to come to it as a thriller and a love story. The characters of Erin (Claire Foy) and Len (Christian Cooke) learn about love and betrayal in their time in the Middle East.
‘It was the hardest shoot of my life but it was incredible working with Claire and Christian. They loved their characters. It was a genuine collaboration. I learned more about the characters by working with them. Christian really understood Len’s humanity, his empathy for the pain of others. As a character he doesn’t say that much, he’s quite shy – he was able to communicate it through his eyes.
With Claire the challenge was that Erin is not superficially a likeable character.
‘She’s short-tempered. She takes offence. She lies. She’s manipulative. For a leading actress, it must be tempting to downplay all that. Claire was brave enough to play Erin as awkward and unprepossessing as she needed to be. And yet, at the end and perhaps because of that, she absolutely breaks your heart.’
The shoot was the first time Peter was able to film in the location where the story is set. For the BAFTA winning The Government Inspector, which told the story of David Kelly, Morocco doubled for Iraq. In Britz, India stood in for Pakistan. The Czech Republic replaced Bosnia for Warriors. It gave the director a unique opportunity to hire actors from both the Arab and Jewish communities. Many of them had never worked together before.
‘I ended up feeling there was nowhere else to shoot this. It brings a verisimilitude – one visible, one invisible. You have the real physical elements – the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture, and you have the invisible – the relationships between the Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast. There was a scene were a Jewish actress plays a Jewish settler, who has a screaming match with a Palestinian woman played by an Israeli Arab. It was a very hostile scene, it felt tense. At the end they wanted to be photographed together as actors.
‘This is the picture you will never see of us in The Promise, of our characters arm in arm’, they were keen to tell me,’ he says.