After coming to international attention with Monsieur Hire at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, veteran French director Patrice Leconte has received recognition in the United States with The Widow of Saint-Pierre, nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 2001 for best foreign language film, and Man on the Train, which was remade in English in 2011 with Donald Sutherland.
A Promise, his first English-language film, is a period romantic drama set in 1912 Germany, in which a striver, Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden), becomes engaged as a clerk in a steel factory. An orphan, Friedrich has overcome his humble upbringing as a state ward to graduate as an engineer. His keen intellect, industry, and innovation soon impress the aging owner, steel magnate Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman), who quickly promotes Friedrich. Because Hoffmeister’s health is in decline, doctor’s orders confine the magnate to his bourgeois home. Appointed as Hoffmeister’s private secretary, Friedrich visits daily for briefings and reveals his shrewd business insight.
Hoffmeister’s beautiful and vivacious young wife, Charlotte (Rebecca Hall), welcomes the young man into her home, and Friedrich ingratiates himself by tutoring her nonacademic young son, Otto (Toby Murray). While Hoffmeister grooms Friedrich as his protégé, Friedrich becomes more and more attached to Lotte. When Hoffmeister asks Friedrich to move into the mansion, the employee is hesitant, fearful that he will betray his feelings for Charlotte, but at her insistence he finally concedes. In this stifling atmosphere, Hoffmeister watches a romance develop, without a demonstrative word or gesture of love.
Leconte mixes veteran performers with rising stars. Alan Rickman delivers a more tender subtlety than he has offered on screen for a long time. As his faithful wife, Hall is charming. Game of Thrones star Madden’s performance as the eager and ambitious young clerk burning with desire is convincing. However, the continuously chaste moments between Hall and Madden lack chemistry, and their thwarted romance is devoid of tension.
Leconte contains the action to the factory offices and the familial home that are shot in a subdued palette with flat lighting by expert cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Ivan Maussion’s period design details imbue the production with Teutonic authenticity, while Pascaline Chavanne provides exquisite costume designer.
The script plays fast and loose, switching protagonists. At first, Frederic is the lead, but two-thirds of the way through Charlotte carries the film, and suddenly at the close the Nazis are on the rise! This is a confusing jump in the time frame of a film that thus far has been devoid of social context, which weakens the drama.
It’s hard to identify the audience for A Promise. In the 21st Century, it feels staidly old-fashioned and ultimately has a muted impact. Although coming in at a tight 94 minutes, the pace makes it feels much longer.