(Photo : IFC Films )
Despite its opulent presentation and romanticism, the period drama (or as some say - the costume drama) has lost some of its allure and luster in the modern cinema landscape. The films are generally not box office hits and the production of them has diminished over the years. "A Promise," directed by Patrice Leconte, is based on the Stefan Zweig novella "Journey into the Past;" this alone would hint at a possible classic that could resuscitate the genre but unfortunately the film does not manage this expected elevation.
The film tells the story of Freidrich Zeitz (Richard Madden), a young man who works for industrialist Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). Zeitz becomes very close with Hoffmeister and eventually meets his wife Lotte (Rebecca Hall), who he falls in love with.
The love affair has become a fixture of the period film, but it often winds up in one of two ways. Either the lovers are able to overcome the odds and live happily ever after or their relationship winds up in tragedy that reflects the difficult social barriers that they are unable to overcome. The film attempts to bring both of these concepts into play but does not manage to do either successfully. The main issue with the movie is that it plays like a costume cliché but more importantly, the love affair lacks the passion or intensity to truly convince the viewer that it is worth investing in. Zeitz is shown ogling Lotte but his actions never suggest more than sexual attraction. The way that Leconte and cinematographer Eduardo Serra shoot the film does little to dissaude the viewer from this conclusion. At a number of different junctures the camera features point of view shots from Zeitz's perspective looking at a part of Lotte's body. In the opera house, the camera focuses on her bare neck and shoulders. As they walk up the stairs, the point of view glimpses her rear quickly. Even the greatest attempts at romantic obsession come off as sexual desire. At one point, Zeitz touches the piano keys with delicacy and slowly brushes his fingers over them in an erotic gesture. Moments later he is almost ready to kiss them and his expression suggests a man in a sexual fantasy. The greatest attempt at romantic expression is one scene in which Zeitz imagines himself dancing with Lotte all alone by the lake. But the activity of dance is inherently sexual, despite the filmmakers' attempts to indicate otherwise. The fact that Zeitz shows himself to be a sexual animal with another girl fortifies this idea.
If Zeitz's "love" is not believable, Lotte's is even less so. While it is understandable that she is happy to see him help take care of her son and goes on long trips with him, there is never any major indication that her current marriage has gone awry to the point that she needs to look for an emotional outlet elsewhere; in fact the state of her marriage is rarely developed or explored enough to give her full dimensionality. How she feels about her husband's impending doom and whether she is worried about the subsequent loneliness is not expressed either. Moreover, she is never given the same level of perspective as Zeitz. The camera is detailed about Zeitz's sexual longing, but there are no complimentary images from Lotte's perspective that would truly sell the idea that he is the love of her life. Moreover, she does not even reveal it until the move is two-thirds of the way done and the contrivances of the plot demand that they make a vow to love each other despite being on different continents.
The film's abrupt change of perspective also does little to illuminate Lotte's thinking either. In what winds up being a perpetual 20-minute montage, the viewer listens to voiceovers of Lotte's yearning, but by that point it seems as if the filmmakers are attempting to convince the viewer that the love is still worth investing in; unfortunately it is "too little too late" as they say. Lotte has remained at such a distance from the viewer throughout the first two-thirds of the film that her sudden domination of it comes off as startling. In fact, the viewer remains interested in finding out what Zeitz is going through (the book actually follows his perspective during the separation) on the other side of the world while World War I breaks out across Europe. The climax is actually quite awkward in its execution as it attempts to showcase two people changed by the war; the problem is that the six-year period is condensed to a 20-minute montage and the major traumas are not really experienced but simply indicated. As a result any change in these characters is inferred but hardly felt or connected with.
The performances are beyond reproach. Madden mixes innocence with an understated aggressive demeanor that expresses his repressed longing beautifully. Hall gives Lotte dignity though she is never really given a chance to express her growing emotions for Zeitz. Rickman's Herr Hoffmeister goes from being a severe man to one filled with subdued warmth and the thespian does the best to showcase his growing suspicion.
Serra's cinematography does have some memorable instances. In one scene the camera moves in and out of focus as it portrays Lotte at the piano; it helps express Zeitz's idea that she is so close and yet so far from him. The tight close-ups as Zeitz's fondles the piano are also quite elegant and alluring in their execution. There are a few awkward zooms that permeate the first third of the film; this technique is not the norm in this kind of genre and it initially seemed like a unique experiment touch. However, the complete abandonment of this technique in favor of more convention visual fare in the remainder of the film only reinforced the sloppy nature of the overall work.
The costumes, particularly Lotte's, are expressive in their ability to show her development as an innocent and pure woman to one marked by guilt. Her initial scenes showcase her in rather light colors but she slowly introduces more black into her wardrobe until by the end she is completely clothed in black garments.
The editing is quite choppy throughout and offers up one of the reasons that the film on the whole is unsuccessful. The initial montage sequences that introduce Zeitz move so quickly that the viewer is left confused about his current station and there also seems to be a rush about forming the relationship between the youngster and his boss. There are some scenes that are completely inexplicable and confusing. For example, Zeitz finds Lotte outside in the rain one day. She looks like she is crying so he jumps out of the car and drives her home. He warms up her hands, but the scene remains a strange part of the film as it is never clarified why she is out in the rain and why she seemed to be crying. The fact that the film's eponymous promise comes in the final third of the movie does not help the pacing either. As aforementioned, the final third of the movie also seems like a mad dash through six years that does little to elevate the film.
"A Promise" is ultimately a run-of-the-mill period film that neither elevates the genre or has anything new to add. The performances are solid throughout, but unfortunately the actors are unable to make sense of this choppy and derivative period melodrama.