By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 5, 2013 at 9:23AM
He’s fallen out of favor a bit in the last few years, but there was a time when Patrice Leconte was one of the most popular foreign filmmakers in the U.S. While he was never a favorite with the hipper critics, over the 1990s and early 2000s, films like “Ridicule,” “ The Girl On The Bridge,” “The Man On The Train” and “Intimate Strangers” became staples on the festival circuit, won BAFTAs and Cesars, and became sizeable arthouse hits.
But the director’s recent films like “Beauties At War” and “The Suicide Shop” have struggled to find audiences at home or abroad, and so Leconte seems to have made another ploy for a bigger crowd: at the age of 66, he’s made his English-language debut. And with an impressive cast mixing veteran performers with rising stars, and source material from “Letter To An Unknown Woman” author Stefan Zweig, it certainly stood a better chance for broad appeal, when it premiered out-of-competition at Venice yesterday, than anything he’s made for a while. Except, unfortunately, it’s not that good.
Adapted by Leconte and Jerome Tonnerre from Zweig’s posthumous novella “Journey Into The Past,” it’s set in Germany in 1912, and stars “Game Of Thrones” actor Richard Madden as Frederic Zeitz, a young man who’s overcome orphan beginnings and being a ward of state to become an engineer. He lands a job as an assistant to the owner of a foundry, Herr Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). The man has a fearsome reputation, but proves to be sweet and kindly, and is soon impressed by Frederic, promoting him through the ranks to become his private secretary and second-in-command.
Equally impressed is Hoffmeister’s younger wife Lotte (Rebecca Hall), who loves her husband dearly, but is still drawn to the handsome young man who’s soon living in her house. The pair fight their feelings, but by the time they’re close to succumbing to them, Hoffmeister—perhaps to keep the two apart—has decided to send Frederic to Mexico to head up a new mining operation. They make the titular promise to each other to consummate their relationship after two years, but not long before Frederic’s planned return, the First World War breaks out, and their separation is extended indefinitely.
We’re sure Zweig’s source material is great and everything, but we hope we’re not being too philistine in saying that the writer who comes to mind most often while watching Leconte’s screen translation is Nicholas Sparks. More than anything else, Leconte’s bland chocolate-box romance resembles a film like “The Notebook” or “The Lucky One,” with its thwarted romance, chaste lack-of-sexuality and thin characters. In fact, Sparks might have been preferable, to be honest, as there are a number of legitimately ridiculous moments here, not least the sexy metaphorical jigsaw puzzle or Frederic and Lotte blithely walking around with total disregard with the whereabouts of the Hoffmeister’s son Otto.
Structurally, the script is entirely broken. The vast bulk of the running time involves the set up, and the vow of the title is made roughly two-thirds of the way through. Then, Frederic—until now, the protagonist—disappears, never shown in Mexico, and while the exact length of his absence is never made clear (on his return, the Nazis are on the rise, so it seems to be at least a decade), it takes up all of about ten minutes on screen. As a result, you never feel Lotte’s soul-crushing angst at their separation, and that pretty much breaks what wasn’t broken already in the film.
On a micro level, the script isn’t all that hot, either. Some foreign filmmakers take to the English-language like ducks to water, and some seemingly just put their script through Google Translate, and that’s the overwhelming impression given here. It’s fortunate, at least, that Leconte has cast such strong actors. Hall is as watchable as ever, and gives nice texture to the role, even if the part itself is much less interesting than she deserves (sadly, something of a theme of late). Madden, making his big-screen debut, proves that his small-screen charisma convincingly carries over to the movies, even if again, the part is bland enough that it’s hardly going to be his finest showcase. And there’s also an impressive debut by British actress Shannon Tarbet, as Frederic’s spurned lover.
Best in show, somewhat surprisingly, is Alan Rickman. It feels like a long time since the actor truly impressed on screen (“Galaxy Quest,” maybe?), but he’s cannily used here—his villainous reputation belying the sweet and generous man that Herr Hoffmeister turns out to be. It’s not exactly a subtle performance, but the few moments when the film turns out to be moving belong to him.
There’s only so much the poor cast can do, though, and while they manage to sell some of the clunkier lines and moments, plenty more slip through. Leconte’s never been the edgiest of filmmakers, but “A Promise” is so free of anything close to an edge that it’s like watching a beige sphere for ninety-odd minutes—and it feels much longer. There’s probably an audience for the film out there, the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, but you have to imagine that even they would end up feeling unsatisfied by this broken 'Promise.' [D+]