A Promise, the English-language debut of seasoned French director Patrice Leconte, aims to be a dramatic romance, but unfortunately it almost plays like a parody. Based on a novel by Austrian Stefan Zweig, the film takes place in Germany in the wake of World War I. Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman) takes Friederich (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), a young, handsome and motivated employee under his wings. After being taken ill and not allowed to go to the office, Hoffmeister choses Friderich to be his personal assistant and provide daily reports in his home. As a consequence, Friderich grows close to the Hoffmeisters, particularly Karl’s attractive and considerably younger wife Charlotte (Rebecca Hall).You can probably guess how the ensuing drama is going to play out if you have ever seen a romantic movie or read a romantic novel: forbidden love, separation, war, loss and other clichés.
A predictable and unoriginal plot is however perfectly acceptable, especially for films of this particular genre, as long as they manage to evoke genuine emotion and affection for the characters, a feat which A Promise completely fails to accomplish. The biggest problem is the writing. Presumably because they are part of the upper class, all the characters (who are supposed to be German) speak in extremely posh, old-fashioned British accents and the pompous, bloated and snobbish dialogue is frankly a bit silly, impossible to take seriously and frequently unintentionally hilarious (sample line: “We are separated by an ocean of iron and fire”) At times it feels as if the French screenwriters (Leconte and Jérôme Tonnerre) wrote the script in French and handed it to a translator with little sense of the story. Furthermore, the acting is weak as well. Madden, who is at the centre of the story, seems to be channelling Keanu Reeves or Hayden Christensen at their worst. Rebecca Hall, who has given some excellent performances in the past, fails to elevate the material and even the legendary Alan Rickman is on (a still remarkable) auto-pilot here. It’s impossible to tell whether he is taking it seriously or not and he does the usual Rickman things (flaring his nostrils, speaking very slowly), without adding anything interesting.
In some ways however, A Promise is very enjoyable, but not in the way the director intended it to. It never gets boring, the period details and costumes are rather well-done, and if Leconte had not taken himself seriously and embraced the films cheesy ridiculousness a bit more, the film could have become a minor cult classic in the “so bad, it’s good” category, in the vein of Mamma Mia (actually a few ABBA songs would definitely have improved A Promise, and Alan Rickman is a better singer than Pierce Brosnan).