A Promise (2014)

It’s not reaching to say that a romance needs some semblance of passion in order to reach the hearts of the people watching it. It’s not believable if two monotonous, blank-faced people “fall in love,” because nobody watching is going to get that sort of feeling. It’s impossible to care about them when this is the case. Such is A Promise, which has two monotonous, blank-faced people — but we’re supposed to care, because … I actually have no idea why.

Beginning in 1912 Germany — despite everyone speaking English with British accents; in these cases I always like to think they’re being “translated” for our sakes — A Promise follows a young engineer named Ludwig (Richard Madden), who begins interning under businessman Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman) and within just a few scenes winds up living in the elder man’s house and becoming his second in command. Seriously. He gets promotion after promotion in a matter of minutes before settling as a live-in right-hand man. Karl has a wife, Charlotte (Rebecca Hall), with whom Ludwig immediately becomes enamored.

Or, I guessed that he did. He never actually shows it. He stares at her, and sniffs her piano — I don’t know why — but he never really shows a shred of emotion for the film’s entirety. I understand why — this is his boss’ wife, after all — but even in private he does little more than sit around, emotionless, and stare. It doesn’t help things cinematically or to get us to invest in the proceedings. Maybe that’s what people did in Germany in 1912, but somehow I doubt it. To be fair, Charlotte is equally passionless. The two spend time together and have fun while enjoying one another’s company, but it never screams “romance.”

The titular “promise,” by the way, is something that happens a long while into the film, after the romance has been established — or, at least, the filmmakers attempt to establish it. If you recall from history, 1912 was just a couple of years before a certain important event, and such an event is going to separate our lovers for several years. No prizes for guessing what the promise is.

Obviously, the primary problem is that romance is passionless and it’s almost impossible to care about anything that happens in regard to these two individuals. They don’t seem to care too much about one another — nothing more than semi-close friends, anyway — and their romance contains few sparks. But the way the film is structured is also a mess. It takes over an hour for the promise to be made, meaning we have to zoom through about a decade of the characters’ lives in around 30 minutes, which doesn’t do it any justice at all. That type of compression really isn’t feasible, especially when a sense of longing is what the filmmakers are trying to convey.

It’s a shame that nothing feels like it matters, because it seems like this should work. A strong cast — Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman are great; I haven’t seen enough of Richard Madden to make that conclusion, but in the “non-love-stricken” scenes, he’s good in this film — an experienced director, and a tried-and-true premise should all lead to a better film than this.

Patrice Leconte served as A Promise‘s director — his English-language debut — and to the film he brought an interesting cinematographic choice. In more shots than not — I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure it’s the majority — the shot will open wider than it finishes. There’s a quick zoom in the middle of many of them which bring us closer to the action. I can’t honestly say there’s any reason for this, other than to give the film a unique style, but it does accomplish that task.

There’s no depth to anything in this film. It resembles a poor Nicholas Sparks adaptation in that aspect. The characters are paper-thin, and there’s nothing to think about besides the poor romance. This would be acceptable if the romance worked, but it doesn’t at all. And because the romance is such a complete failure, we look to secondary sources to hold our attention. When there isn’t anything, it’s tempting to write a film off. The film’s style can only go so far, especially when it’s one little camera technique repeated over and over again.

It’s weird that A Promise‘s romance is as dead-on-arrival as it is. As I mentioned, these are good actors. And they’re even good in this film, but only when they’re not trying to act like they’re in love. It doesn’t even seem to be a matter of chemistry, as the two lead actors seem to get along well whenever they’re not trying to act like they’re in love. Were they directed to act like they’re not interested in one another? Why? Alan Rickman, by the way, only occasionally appears, and only does so to (1) give us a reason the two leads can’t be together and (2) provide some mild laughs.

A Promise is a drag of a movie. It’s a romantic period drama that lacks any sort of romance or additional depth, which means that there really isn’t much reason to watch it. Its director gives the film its own style, and you do feel immersed in the recreation of pre-WWI Germany, but there’s little to compel an audience and even less reason to care about anything that happens, as the actors seem to believe in the central romance even less than we do.

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