Based on Stefan Zweig's novella Journey into the Past, A Promise is a curiously conventional affair for the usually unpredictable Patrice Leconte. In pre-WWI Germany, up-and-coming secretary Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden) is whisked off to factory owner Hoffmeister's (Alan Rickman) estate to serve as a tutor for his young son. And it's there that Friedrich catches the eye of the boss's younger wife, Lotte (Rebecca Hall), after which their instant attraction is challenged both by Zeitz's general reticence and Mrs. Hoffmeister's loyalty to her husband.
Aggressively promising a will-they-or-won't-they potboiler, A Promise shirks subtlety. Likewise, Gabriel Yared's score relentlessly strains for operatic gravitas as Eduardo Serra's camera perpetually whirls about, its hyperactive energy never meshing organically with the film's period aesthetics and mannered performances. A fidgety, seemingly disinterested Madden miscalculates Friedrich's turmoil as a source of annoyance rather than confliction, while Rickman amps up his signature seething as the ailing Hoffmeister, whose lines always sound either accusatory or outright sinister. Hall, at least, moves between her character's displays of stoicism and lust with her customary sense of grace, easily showing up her co-stars.
Throughout, Leconte struggles to find a coherent rhythm, a problem exacerbated by a hurried running time that compresses some of the novella's more interesting socio-political nuances. He lingers much too long on stolen glances and impassioned stares, and the script's dialogue, so riddled with double entendre, is often absurd in its transparency: When Lotte and Friedrich play a game with Otto, they insist on having a discussion on the perils of cheating. In the end, this is a much less urgent and purposeful drama than the filmmaker's vitriolic French Revolution-set Ridicule, a film that wielded language as a weapon to criticize aristocratic excess.
Still, Leconte redeems himself somewhat in the film's third act. Following the outbreak of the Great War, Friedrich and Lotte are trapped on opposite sides of both the conflict and the globe. Their attraction finally articulated but painfully unrealized, the lovers vow that they'll be together, but when lines of communication are cut, Lotte is left waiting. It's here that Leconte cuts through the fluff of young romance, showing the painful incompatibility between love and war. The director knows that romance can never disconnect from reality: While the couple's courtship survives across years and continents, their amorous declarations do not exclude them from the unforgiving grimness of 20th-century Europe. As swastikas line the streets, Leconte taps into the collective unease offered by historical hindsight. It's a sobering and effective conclusion, even if it renders the film's first two acts, so replete with saccharine exchanges, shallow by comparison.