Love is an emotion that defies all explanation or understanding. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love remains something that can be seen by those around you, but often times the how and the why of it remains as elusive to everyone and every observer in the vicinity. All we truly know is that the heart wants what the heart wants, and this can make for some incredibly sleepless nights as well as some horrifically frustrating days. In the end, it will mean only what it’s supposed to mean to those who’ve felt it most spiritually – in their hearts and souls – especially when it’s taken so very long to achieve whatever fulfillment it promises.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Germany, 1912. Friedrich (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones), a graduate of humble origins, takes up a clerical post in a steel factory, soon becoming the private secretary and boarder of elderly owner Karl (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter). There he meets Lotte (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Karl’s reserved and beautiful young wife. Starting an illicit romance, the two young lovers’ dreams are dashed when Karl announces he’s sending his secretary to oversee his mines in Mexico. But Lotte makes a promise to Friedrich: when he returns in two years, she will be his no matter what.”
Hollywood has lost touch with what an old-style romantic picture looks like, and perhaps that’s why critically something like A PROMISE doesn’t make sense under its banner. Neither of these young people – Friedrich or Lotte – are suffering from terminal disease. Neither of them are all that outgoing or expressive; in fact, Friedrich is quite bookish while Charlotte remains very stoic in her ability to express much outward emotion. They’re both well-behaved – both very prim and proper – so it would stand to reason that if they don’t act the part and if they don’t look the part then they can’t represent any form of true Hollywood love.
But there’s plenty of charm to A PROMISE if you’re looking in the right places. There’s that spark of electricity when hands inadvertently connect over a jigsaw puzzle. There’s the sexual tension of finding a man’s hand slowly working his way up her ankle. There are long, fervent gazes and looks from afar … even when that distance is little more than across the room. Because it’s in these small, modest expressions that these two characters find a way to communicate their magnetic attraction to one another. It isn’t in big, swirling, romantically passionate moments (though Friedrich does get a roll in the hay with a girl at his first boarding house). Otherwise, these special moments are probably much too small for the truly uninitiated to even notice, but they’re there nonetheless.
Madden handles romantic leading man status here with good depth as Friedrich largely remains a man stuck in history – he’s far too polite, civilized, and mature to surrender to what his heart desires (well, up to a point, that is). He’s always caught between his profession and his position – he’s had what one might call an orphan’s upbringing, and he’s remained committed to letting his hard work to gain his access to rising above his station. Likewise, Hall imbues Lotte with a kind of small-town charm: she’s entirely unwilling to act on her illicit passions, and this only widens the self-imposed chasm in her heart when she believes she’s lost what looked like true love.
Exquisitely photographed and staged with tremendous care toward period detail, A PROMISE isn’t the kind of film most folks will pick up from the video store shelves. It uses the bulk of its 98 minutes (and that’s no joke) to give these two lovestruck individuals their chance in the sunlight. It could’ve been trimmed a bit here or there, but I’m not entirely convinced that would’ve shown audiences what was most important, that being that a promise is something to be kept, even at the expense of your own heart.
A PROMISE (2013) is produced by Fedélité Films, Wild Bunch, Scope Pictures, Orange Cinéma Séries, and a whole host of others (check out IMDB.com if you’re that interested). DVD distribution is being handled by MPI Media Group on behalf of IFC Films. As for the technical specifications, this is one smartly assembled feature, and it boasts some high quality sights and sounds accordingly. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, there sadly are none.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought A PROMISE was a respectful story about love, how it’s found in curiously placed, and what it might just expect of us. Plus, it’s always nice to see a period romantic drama that doesn’t descends into bodice-ripping and, instead, respects the boundaries a society, a culture, and a morality may place on each of us should we be found in similar circumstances. Its pacing wasn’t perfect – at 98 minutes, it’s probably a bit long – but fidelity of this nature doesn’t come quickly and easily.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with a DVD copy of A PROMISE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.