It’s been almost two decades since idiosyncratic French filmmaker Patrice Leconte delivered a near-masterpiece in the form of 1996’s Ridicule, an opulent and hugely absorbing period drama of verbal sparring in the court at Versailles. It’s safe to say that A Promise (2013), the director’s first English-language foray, won’t be knocking that aforementioned feature off the top spot any time soon. This stodgy Euro-pudding (German story, English adaptation, French director) was always going to run the risk of being a little uneven, but the end result is still disappointingly stilted and inert. Leconte directs this early 19th century love triangle with all the weight and depth of a leisurely ITV afternoon drama.
It doesn’t help that the material Leconte is working with (originally a novella by famed Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, also the driving influential force behind Wes Anderson’s immeasurably superior The Grand Budapest Hotel) feels uninspiring and prosaic. Taking the role of personal secretary and right-hand man to a wealthy factory owner Karl (Alan Rickman), ambitious engineer Friedrich (played with wide-eyed naivety by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) finds himself indispensable to his ailing boss. When the older man becomes too ill to attend to normal business affairs on his own, he talks his young confidante into taking a room in the home he shares with his son and young wife, Lotte (Rebecca Hall). Even the less discerning viewer should be able to guess where the tale goes from here.
Leconte’s confidence with the English language seems a little shaky, and that problem manifests itself in the very mannered and awkward performances he extracts from an otherwise more than capable cast. The trio lack any real spark, while the biggest waste of all is the woefully underused Rickman as the cuckolded husband. But it isn’t just the actors who under-perform. The production as a whole has a distinctly amateur feel to it, from the distractingly jerky camera work to the sloppy visual metaphors and painfully obvious ‘stolen moments’ between Madden and Hall. Leconte has certainly assembled a cracking creative team, including cinematographer Eduardo Serra and the late Anthony Minghella’s frequent collaborator, composer Gabriel Yared. Alas, their efforts are muted here. The only promise fans of Leconte should be asking for is that the French director refrain from delivering such sub-par works as this ever again.