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VENICE — Veteran French director Patrice Leconte’s career has been littered with international art-house successes in which sensuality played an important role, from The Hairdresser’s Husband to Girl on the Bridge. Which makes the emotional and sexual tepidness of his first English-language film, A Promise, all the more disappointing. The chief shortcoming is a stunning absence of chemistry between the two most ardent points of the period drama’s romantic triangle, but this is a limp misfire in every respect.
Adapted by Jerome Tonnerre and Leconte from Stefan Zweig’s posthumously published novella Journey Into the Past, the film strands Rebecca Hall in an ill-fitting role opposite a wooden Richard Madden, the Game of Thrones regular slated to play Prince Charming in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella for Disney. Alan Rickman fares a little better, largely because he spends more time on the sidelines of the story, which begins in Germany in 1912.
Madden plays Friedrich, who grew up a humble ward of the state and is now fresh out of college with a top engineering degree. He finds employment at a steelworks, where his dedication soon gets him noticed by aloof boss Karl Hoffmeister (Rickman), leading to a swift promotion. When Herr Direktor’s poor health forces him to work from home, Friedrich becomes his invaluable factory go-between. But the ambitious upstart eyes more than advancement when he meets Hoffmeister’s much younger wife, Lotte (Hall), winning points with her by offering to tutor the couple’s son, Otto (Toby Murray).
Friedrich ditches his low-rent girlfriend (Shannon Tarbet) and starts shooting yearning glances at Lotte. And while her sense of propriety keeps her composed, it’s clear she feels the same. In one overripe scene, both Friedrich and poor doting old Karl are all but humping the office walls as Lotte plays a Beethoven sonata in the next room. Judging by the number of times we hear it, she apparently only knows the one piece. Still, that doesn’t deter Friedrich from sniffing the keyboard.
A day in the country and a night at the opera push Friedrich’s passion to boiling point, and still Lotte remains cool. She breaks down and confesses her love only when Karl decides to pack the lad off to Mexico to run a business offshoot. She vows to be his when he returns in two years, but WWI and other distractions get in the way, leaving Lotte alone with her voice-overs for a big chunk of the movie.
While A Promise is not quite the embarrassment of countless Euro-puddings of yore, in a way it’s worse for being merely dull. There’s so little spark between Hall and Madden that we have no reason to invest in whether or not their characters end up together. Their scenes are full of loaded dialogue, but no heat. Lacking in social context, the action is too compressed to convey the longing of the distance and time that separate Friedrich and Lotte.
In stage and television roles, Hall has shown she knows her way around period pieces, but there’s something awkward and perhaps too contemporary about her work here. Or it could just be that Madden’s stiffness is contagious. Rickman brings some class to the table, draping a melancholy veil over Karl’s superciliousness. But nobody could envy him having to say lines like, “He took possession of you, and you dispossessed me.”
The film’s emotionally moribund atmosphere is not helped by its flat visuals and underpopulated feel. Production and costume design are adequate if unexceptional — certainly a far cry from the sumptuousness of Leconte period outings like Ridicule.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition; also in Toronto festival)
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Alan Rickman, Richard Madden, Toby Murray, Maggie Steed, Shannon Tarbet
Director: Patrice Leconte
Screenwriters: Jerome Tonnerre, Patrice Leconte, based on “Journey Into the Past” by Stefan Zweig
Production company: Fidelite, Scope Pictures, in association with Wild Bunch
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producer: Christine de Jekel
Director of photography: Eduardo Serra
Production designer: Ivan Maussion
Music: Gabriel Yared
Editor: Joelle Hache
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 98 minutes.
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