Alan Rickman, the actor most famously known for portraying Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, is usually worth the price of admission alone.
He reminds us why in his first appearance in “A Promise,” a costume drama of romantic yearning made by French director Patrice Leconte. It co-stars Rickman with fellow Brits Rebecca Hall and Richard Madden, who portray Germans from 1912, before the outbreak of World War I, until the early rumblings of the Third Reich.
Rickman, as Karl Hoffmeister, owner of a steel works plant, steps into the small office of Friedrich Zeitz (Madden), an ambitious young man of modest means. “Frau Hoffmeister is a stickler for punctuality. Soup is on the plate at 7:30,” he says as he eyes the young man. Then he adds, with that trademark sneer, “I ab-hor soup.”
As satisfying as that moment is, it’s a kinder and gentler Rickman from that point on. Hoffmeiser confides a health secret to his young university-trained recruit, promotes him to be his right-hand man and extends an invitation to live in the mansion he shares with Lotte (Hall), his elegantly beautiful and considerably younger wife, and their son, Otto.
It doesn’t take longer than Lotte’s first appearance descending the staircase to know where this is going, but it takes a long time to get there. The film is adapted from “Journey Into the Past,” a posthumously published novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. It’s a familiar story of contained passion with no feasible outlet.
There are early inklings of their attraction, from Lotte’s frequent invitations to Friedrich’s coming to her rescue to remove a rat from the drawing room. In one scene, Friedrich sniffs the keys to a piano Lotte previously sat at to play the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, in search of a whiff of her lingering perfume.
Friedrich, who grew up a ward of the state and earned a metallurgy chemistry degree determined to make something of himself, can scarcely believe his sudden good fortune at having risen so fast up the ranks. But that changes in an instant, when he is unexpectedly asked to go to Mexico for two years to oversee a cost-savings project of his own initiative. That prompts Lotte to express her love on the eve of his departure, with both of them promising to continue where they left off when he returns – and before the war will intervene.
Hoffmeister’s subtlety in tone and inflection, and curious actions are continually open to interpretation. Has he intentionally set up this affair-in-waiting, is he in denial or even oblivious?
Unfortunately, the film has an inexplicably unsatisfying and almost tacked-on ending, betraying its early promise.
Oh well, the acting overall is solid, and there’s always Rickman to sit back and enjoy, watching a master at work.
Starring: Alan Rickman, Rebecca Hall, Richard Madden
Director: Patrice Leconte
Running time: 98 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for a scene of sexuality.
The Lowdown: An ailing steel magnate invites an ambitious assistant to live in the mansion he shares with his young wife.