Film Review: A Promise

Handsomely filmed but wan period romance.

Stefan Zweig, the talented and prolific Viennese writer, has been getting something of a major revival lately, what with the release of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, which the director says was inspired by his readings of Zweig's fin-de-siecle-tinged prose. However, the truth is that Zweig, who committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, depressed by what he saw then as a totalitarian world takeover, has been a consistent script source filmmakers have turned to since the 1920s. His novel, Letter from an Unknown Woman, alone has been adapted to film four times, including Max Ophuls’ exquisite 1948 masterpiece, starring Joan Fontaine in her finest performance.

A Promise is director Patrice Leconte's version of Zweig's posthumously published novella Journey into the Past, recounting the illicit love between Friedrich (Richard Madden), an impoverished engineer, and Lotte (Rebecca Hall), the aristocratic wife of his sickly employer Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). Friedrich has risen through the ranks of Karl's workers, and gains a special intimacy with his family when he tutors his little son Otto (Toby Murray). In a development reminiscent of Dreiser's An American Tragedy, he ditches his humble apartment and a poor girlfriend (lovely Shannon Tarbet) for a better life, however fraught with adulterous temptation and the fear of discovery it might possess.

Leconte (Ridicule) is a sure hand with period pieces, and his movie is handsome indeed to look at, beautifully shot and tastefully designed. There is an undoubted sense of luxury in the viewer's ability to just burrow himself into such a glowingly accurate presentation of the past, sans any jarring anachronisms which beset so many cinematic period pieces (apart from an ill-judged wig on a performer during a crucial opera sequence). It's a dignified, watchable film that unfortunately lacks sufficient emotional passion and a satisfying dramatic through-line. The most intense moments here stem from the scenes involving Alan Rickman, traditionally one of our coolest, most reticent actors, and that says a lot.

The imperious, bloodless Hoffmeister, who cannot abide upsets or noise of any kind, is a role Rickman could play in his sleep (and with those perpetually hooded eyes, he always does seem half-awake anyway). The impossibly clear-eyed Madden (late of “Game of Thrones”) is convincingly intelligent and serious, while Hall brings her elegant Olive Oyl beauty and poise—she’s a capable, smart actress who is always more impressive onscreen, as in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, than onstage (As You Like It, Machinal). The repressed nature of Zweig's characters makes it difficult for their affair to really catch fire, and Leconte refrains from ladling on the overwrought music and other cheap effects to amp things up. While admirable on a taste level, this is also a detriment; after a promising, romantically thwarted beginning, this woefully underpopulated film just sort of drains away into a tasteful nothingness. Yes, the lovers are eventually united, but by then any serious interest in them has severely waned.

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