A French director working with British actors and pre-WWI German setting could theoretically make a film that rises above Europudding mediocrity, but that potential goes unrealized by “A Promise,” Patrice Leconte’s unpromising first foray into English-language filmmaking. Led by a trio of lackluster performances from Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall and “Game of Thrones” thesp Richard Madden, this awkward, passionless drama conveys neither the sensuality nor the drawn-out sense of longing required by its period tale of a young secretary who falls in love with his employer’s wife. The French-Belgian co-production will rely on high regard for Leconte’s past work to drum up arthouse interest offshore.
Adapted by Leconte and Jerome Tonnerre (who also co-wrote the director’s “My Best Friend” and “Intimate Strangers”) from Stefan Zweig’s posthumously published novel “Journey Into the Past,” the story begins in 1912 Germany, a time and place of rapid industrial change as quickly suggested by an opening-credits montage of clanging metal and fiery furnaces. Wealthy steel-factory owner Karl Hoffmeister (Rickman) needs an assistant and hires Frederic Zeitz (Madden), a young man of modest background but considerable intelligence and work ethic who quickly becomes indispensable to Karl, who is not in the best of health.
The emotional temperature mildly escalates when Frederic meets Karl’s beautiful and much younger wife, Lotte (Hall), and begins tutoring their young son, Otto (Toby Murray), with whom he bonds immediately. With Frederic soon spending almost all his time with the Hoffmeisters, it soon makes sense for the secretary to leave his lowly digs and take up residence in their well-appointed bourgeois home. Scowling from the sidelines is Frederic’s sometime lover (Shannon Tarbet), with whom he has one vigorous, if almost comically brief, final fling before moving on to a better life.
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What sounds like an instant recipe for domestic disaster actually takes its sweet time, as Frederic and Lotte scrupulously avoid expressing feelings that are quite obvious to the audience, if not necessarily to themselves at first. He catches and disposes of a rat that frightens her in the drawing room; she transfixes him by playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique over and over and over again on the piano, its adagio tempo setting such a languid, monotonous rhythm that audiences may be tempted to start shouting musical requests at the screen.
There are occasional whispers in the direction of steamy/risible melodrama, as when Frederic, attempting to catch a lingering waft of Lotte’s fragrance (Repression for Women?), practically tickles the ivories with his nose. But for the most part, the key figures in this tastefully buttoned-up drama (the buttons and other early-1900s accouterments are supplied by costume designer Pascaline Chavanne) behave with a noble but dramatically lethal combo of loyalty and pride, so that by the time the outside world intervenes — a sudden business opportunity for Frederic in Mexico, the inconveniently timed outbreak of WWI — they have little to sustain their love beyond a vague promise to reunite when the war is over.
In keeping up corseted appearances, the film is clearly aiming for a meticulous slow-burn effect that is ill served by its wobbly command of mise-en-scene. While Ivan Maussion’s spare production design serviceably suggests a Teutonic background (the film was shot in Belgium), the bland, unburnished lighting and the cheap, digital-looking quality of the images (shot by the typically aces Eduardo Serra) have a dampening effect on the film’s attempts to build either a persuasive sense of historical reality or an erotically charged atmosphere.
Of the central trio, Rickman perhaps comes off best in a less prickly, more tender register than he has occupied of late. The usually appealing Hall somehow doesn’t look quite right in this particular context, and she seems at once too tall and too vivacious to be a desirable physical or emotional match for the wooden Madden. A dab hand at period entertainments (“The Widow of Saint-Pierre,” “Ridicule”), Leconte keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace to bring “A Promise” in at 98 minutes, with the effect that one of the story’s key themes — the long, agonizing passage of time — barely even seems to register. A long-distance letter-writing montage near the end is stacked with lines like “It is for our love that I am in mourning,” delivered with altogether less passion or interest than Karl and Frederic’s early conversations about metallurgical chemistry.