A Promise, film review: More suet than sex in this Europudding writ large

(12A) Patrice Leconte, 98 mins Starring: Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall, Richard Madden
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The Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), whose novella Journey into the Past has been adapted for the screen as A Promise, has always polarised opinion. His critical reputation hasn't yet recovered from the kicking he was given by the poet and translator Michael Hofmann in the London Review of Books after his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was re-published in 2009. "Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He's the Pepsi of Austrian writing," Hofmann dismissed Zweig, calling him "putrid through and through".

Despite Hofmann's attack, Zweig has been enjoying a huge recent surge in popularity. Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, partly inspired by Zweig's 1939 novel, Beware of Pity, was a critical and box-office success. There are several new screen adaptations of his work incoming, among them a version of Beware of Pity to be directed by Bille August and a film on Mary Queen of Scots, adapted from his book on her. Jean-Luc Godard cites Zweig's book on Balzac as an exemplary biography.

A Promise is a film about sexual obsession in which sex itself is barely mentioned beyond clumsy references to Freud ("That Viennese doctor who claims he can read your thoughts by listening to your dreams."). It is a strangely muted affair that suffers from its many competing influences and backers. This is a Belgian-financed, French-directed, German-set drama featuring British actors – in other words, a Europudding writ large. Beneath the suet, though, Leconte is true to Zweig's vision. He deals with all the elements (thwarted love, sexual jealousy, nostalgia, fatalism and snobbery) that are found in the best Zweig adaptations. Richard Madden (best known as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones) gives an impressively focused and intense performance as Friedrich Zeitz, a young man from a humble background who's on the make. Inevitably, his ambition gets in the way of his own romantic yearnings. Madden captures the character's ruthlessness, arrogance and his naiveté.

The film begins in Germany in 1912 just as Friedrich secures a low-level clerical job in the offices of manufacturing tycoon Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). Hoffmeister, a prickly and distant man with poor health, takes a keen interest in his new employee. Friedrich is quickly promoted. By becoming tutor to Hoffmeister's young son, Otto, he soon has his boss's entire family under his wing.

Ten minutes into the film, Friedrich catches his first glimpse of his boss's much younger wife, Charlotte Hoffmeister (Rebecca Hall), as she walks down a staircase. She is dressed in silver and framed in a way that makes her look like Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a wealthy industrialist who was the subject of famous paintings by Gustav Klimt. As played by Hall, Charlotte is a mix of ingenuousness and coquetry, a femme fatale with a very diffident air. It's a stark contrast to her role as the vicious and vindictive Sylvia in Parade's End but in its own quiet way, Hall's performance is affecting and powerful.

Rebecca Hall plays a femme fatale with a very diffident air

The mutual attraction between Charlotte and Friedrich is obvious to see, but neither is prepared to acknowledge it. Whereas Friedrich is uninhibited with his working-class lover Anna (Shannon Tarbert), he behaves with an absurdly rigid decorum in Charlotte's presence. In its less effective moments, the film is as buttoned-up and strait-laced as he is.

In his earlier films, such as Monsieur Hire (1989) and The Hairdresser's Husband (1990), Leconte has often dealt with voyeurism and erotic desire. The difference about A Promise is that this is a costume drama set in a rigidly hierarchical society.

Without always succeeding, Leconte tries to hint at the seething passions the characters feel as they sip tea and make small talk. His approach is almost too subtle and oblique. Only in hindsight do we realise the significance of their tell-tale gestures and remarks.

Rickman plays Herr Hoffmeister in a deliberately aloof and enigmatic way. We are not at all sure about why he has brought Friedrich and Charlotte so close together. Does he want them to become lovers or is he taken by surprise by their increasing intimacy? Rickman is too guarded to let us into such secrets. Instead, he hovers at the sidelines, a brooding and melancholic presence.

The cinematographer Eduardo Serra shoots A Promise in rich, dark colours. Leconte pays extraordinary attention to production design and costume: the heavy clothes the characters wear and the paintings and ornaments that always seem to surround them.

The restrained storytelling style means that the rare moments in which the characters express their desires frankly seem all the more powerful. There is a jarring sequence in which Friedrich accompanies Charlotte to the opera. He is sitting behind her in a box and is using his opera glasses not to look at the stage but to stare at her. He pores over the piano keys that she has just played with a fetishistic fascination. Similarly, when he follows her up the staircase, Leconte shows us his point of view as he watches her with unabashed lust. Crude cut-aways to the fires that rage in Hoffmeister's steel factories remind us that he is struggling to cope with the emotions she provokes in him.

There is something frustrating about the plot twists that keep the would-be lovers so far apart. A film which begins as a chamber piece set in a very specific period suddenly begins to lurch forward in time in disconcerting fashion. The credibility of the plotting is stretched to breaking point in the process.

A Promise won't ever be bracketed with Max Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (to which it pays homage at various points) as one of the best Zweig adaptations. It is far too uneven for that. Nonetheless, at its best, it has some of the same qualities as Ophüls' classic. This is another story of passion deferred and of would-be lovers who don't understand or won't acknowledge each other's motivations. In keeping with his characters, Leconte's storytelling style, though, is detached and non-committed – one reason why the film never quite tugs at the emotions in the way that might have been expected.