A Promise movie review: the waiting is the hardest part

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A Promise red light

This dreary, drippy period romance is sorely lacking in juicy melodrama and some sizzle among supposed stifled lovebirds.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

A period romance with Alan Rickman and Rebecca Hall? Oh goody! I thought. What could go wrong? Almost everything, it transpires. Major problem: by the time this dreary, drippy would-be melodrama gets to the titular promise, there’s not enough movie left to do it the sort of heart-rending justice it needs to be as tragically romantic as we’re intended to take it as.

See, Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden: Game of Thrones) is the new engineer-slash-clerk at the steel factory in 1912 Germany, and has caught the eye of ailing tycoon-owner Karl Hoffmeister (Rickman: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Gambit), who takes the lad on as his personal secretary, right down to moving Friedrich into his family manse when the old man’s health deteriorates to the point where he’s too ill to go out. Complication: Mrs. Boss, Lotte (Hall: Transcendence, Closed Circuit), is way younger than her sick husband, and a hottie to boot. Friedrich is instantly smitten, but of course Edwardian (or whatever they called that era in Germany) mores means he must pine away from afar, and resort to weird creeping like sniffing the keys of the piano in the parlor after Frau Hoffmeister has been playing, to catch her lingering scent. (“Sniffing the piano” is my new go-to phrase for gross stalkerish behavior: “Is that guy bothering you?” “Yeah, he’s been sniffing the piano around me for days now.”)

French director Patrice Leconte (Man on the Train) — working in the English language for the first time — opts for an oddly incongruous handheld vibe, perhaps hoping that it will bring an immediacy that the lack of sizzle among any of the three actors is failing to provide. For Lotte starts to get into Friedrich, too, though we have no idea of this until she actually says as much. (Reference: the aforementioned lack of sizzle.) Far too late into the film, Karl sends Friedrich off to Mexico to head up an important new mining offshoot of the business — a sending off that, at the end of the film, will make no sense whatsoever — and though the young man is only meant to be gone for two years, the Great War breaks out, which means no transatlantic travel, and so Lotte and Friedrich’s promise that they’ll wait for each other and be together eventually is put to a harsh test.

But though it’s meant to be a trial for them to be kept apart for so very long, it ends up only a trial for us watching. Nearly a decade zips by in the space of a few onscreen minutes and little more emotional inconvenience than a couple of pining letters. Paradoxically, though, we feel the years pass with an acute worry that the interminable moping will never come to an end.

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Fri, Aug 01, 2014 10:00am

The Wilhelminian Era (the later part of the Second German Reich).

A film that’s about lots of sighing and meaningful glances can work, but chemistry really is needed.

Fri, Aug 01, 2014 3:27pm

I like it. Will do my best to spread “sniffing the piano” around the Americas.