Germany, 1912. Friederich (Richard Madden), a young graduate of modest means, is engaged as a private secretary to ageing business magnate Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman). When Hoffmeister falls ill he invites Friederich to stay at his house and handle his affairs whereupon the young man grows smitten with his employer's much younger wife, Charlotte (Rebecca Hall). At first Friederich struggles to hide his feelings but over time it becomes obvious Charlotte is in love with him too. A suspicious Hoffmeister sends Friederich to Mexico to oversee an iron mining operation. Before he leaves, Friederich makes Charlotte promise they will consummate their love upon his return. But in the wake of his departure comes the outbreak of the First World War.
Adapted from the novel "Journey into the Past" by Stefan Zweig, A Promise is the first film in the English language from French auteur Patrice Leconte. An excellent score by Gabriel Yared compliments Leconte's pacy visual style that prevents this becoming another starchy period piece. Yet despite a high calibre cast the love story never really catches fire. Part of the problem is the emotionally reticent Friederich who comes across as diffident, cold even calculating in parts. From the start he treats his working class girlfriend with barely concealed contempt, casting her aside mere minutes after sex before setting his sights on a more affluent quarry. There is something vaguely creepy about the manner in which Friederich inveigles his way into the Hoffmeister household, makes them come to depend on him and gradually usurps Karl's role as husband and father.
Of course none of this was intended to come across as creepy. It was meant to seem passionate and romantic. Yet in this instance the sensuality reoccurring from Leconte's previous tales of romantic obsession, e.g. The Hairdresser's Husband (1990) and Le Parfum d'Yvonne (1994), goes curiously awry. Instead of sharing Friederich's heartache one feels more than tad uneasy in scenes where he sniffs piano keys touched by Charlotte's hands or sneaks into her bedroom while she bathes in the room next door. One person's hopeless romantic is another person's stalker. Nevertheless the film does underline that while Charlotte is fond of her husband (who started out a family friend and helped her get over the death of her childhood sweetheart) she feels stifled being married to an older man. For his part Karl reacts to the growing closeness between Friederich and his wife with an ambiguous mix of subdued hostility and quiet resignation and Leconte comes across as equally uncertain as to how he wants us to feel about these events.
With no mention of politics or global events until the sound of a bell heralds the First World War, the film uncomfortably echoes La Vie en Rose (2007) in reducing a momentous historical tragedy to a blithe sub-plot while the conclusion briefly touches on the rise of Nazism. Much of the second act unfolds through love letters narrated by the leads as Charlotte endures both Friederich's absence and Karl's fading health. Just as Charlotte says the one thing that keeps her alive is the memory of Friederich's love, the only thing that retains viewer interest throughout this movie is Rebecca Hall's tireless performance. Otherwise it is a tepid romance that rambles on past its obvious conclusion without ever stirring the heart.