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‘A Promise” seeks to be an intensely intimate portrait of repressed desire; a European “In The Mood For Love” set in pre-Great War Germany, with enough attentive butlers, elegant interiors and Sunday-finest promenades to make any Merchant-Ivory fan swoon.

Based on the novel “Journey into the Past” by 1920s Austrian author Stefan Zweig — whose works are experiencing renewed popularity, partly due to Wes Anderson citing him as a huge inspiration for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — the setup gets to the point fairly quickly. An orphaned young man of humble origins, Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden, “Game of Thrones”), manages to land an office job with wealthy industrialist Herr Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). He applies himself to his work, and is rather quickly taken under the wing of his employer, entrusted with more responsibility to the point where he is clearly being groomed as Hoffmeister’s successor.

The twist comes when Zeitz meets his employer’s much younger wife, Lotte (Rebecca Hall), and is immediately intrigued. Zeitz has a girlfriend, Anna (Shannon Tarbet), an earthy, passionate neighbor in the slum where he lives, but he is instantly intrigued by Frau Hoffmeister’s scents, her piano playing, her cleanliness. Or perhaps it’s the fact that she is forbidden fruit?

A Promise (Kure Ai)
Rating
Director Patrice Leconte
Run Time 98 minutes
Language English
Opens Dec. 20

When Zeitz is invited to live with the Hoffmeisters and tutor their son, his obsession with Lotte only grows, and is noticed by his employer, which director Patrice Leconte inelegantly highlights by ending nearly every scene between Lotte and Zeitz with a shot of Herr Hoffmeister peering suspiciously from a window. About the only suspense lies in whether Hoffmeister, who is ailing and aging, is deliberately setting up Zeitz to take his place, or whether that’s a wedge coming between their father-son relationship.

It is here that “A Promise” drops the ball. Leconte wants us to accept the romance that develops between Lotte and Zeitz as a pure one — besotted lovers doomed by circumstance to remain discreet and apart. (And World War I is a pretty huge circumstance.) But Leconte makes a common mistake, one of assuming that because the protagonist is, well, the protagonist, that he immediately has our sympathies without really ever working to establish that connection.

Much of the blame lies in Madden’s portrayal of Zeitz, which renders him as something of a cipher, his necessarily repressed feelings winding up as a mask that hides almost all emotion. Hall is somewhat better, and Rickman more so, but the proceedings are so bloodless, it’s hard to care. Zeitz treats his former lover, Anna, so callously, that it’s easy to think that his love for Lotte is less one of kindred souls than a confirmation of his upward mobility. “A Promise” might have been a more intriguing film if that were what it was trying to say, but its closing shot of a culminating kiss rings hollow. This fairy-tale romance is particularly disappointing coming from Leconte, who’s done much more challenging work in “The Girl On The Bridge” and “The Hairdresser’s Husband.”

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