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A Promise

Odds are, few of the people who have seen Wes Anderson’s current screwball-retro movie The Grand Budapest Hotel judged it according to its fidelity to the literary work of Stefan Zweig, the once-internationally popular Austrian author whom Anderson says inspired it. Anderson has created a self-indulgently arch movie set in a re-imagined early 1930s Eastern Europe that is as much a focus as the complicated, briskly narrated plot or the eccentrically conceived characters.

The Grand Budapest Hotel moves along at an increasing clip, when Anderson’s not pausing for oddball jokes and baroque sight gags. It’s an ostentatiously self-conscious exercise, in no wise reminiscent of the artistic spirit of Zweig’s work. His themes and attitude tended toward refined rue, emotional frustration and poignant ironies. For these, you’re better off consulting Max Ophuls’s 1948 film, Letter From an Unknown Woman, adapted from a Zweig’s novella. A Promise, adapted from Zweig’s Journey Into the Past by veteran French writer-director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband), is also somewhat redolent of his sensibility. And except for a little impromptu rutting, it is tony, particularly in Alan Rickman’s stylized performance of soft-spoken bourgeois superiority.

Young Friedrich, a recent University graduate (Richard Madden), goes to work as a junior metallurgical engineer in a large steel mill somewhere in Germany in 1912. He’s warned to stay out of the way of the chairman, Herr Hoffmeister (Rickman), but his industry and intelligence bring him to the chairman’s attention, and when Hoffmeister has an episode of bad health at the office, the young man is taken into the older one’s confidence. Soon, he’s also taken into the Hoffmeister home as the chairman’s live-in secretary. There the youth has a greater opportunity to admire Charlotte, Frau Hoffmeister (Rebecca Hall), an increasingly guilty and uncomfortable pleasure. Nervously fond glances, lonely fascination, and suppression ensue. Eventually, Friedrich’s attraction is positively acknowledged, but by then, Hoffmeister and global events intervene to separate the pair, despite a mutual pact.

LeConte’s picture draws out this story of forbidden love in a steady, proficient fashion, but this becomes part of the problem. LeConte’s style is often subdued; the plight of the repressed lovers isn’t often enough reflected in his direction. Hall’s Charlotte doesn’t always help. The actress is either miscast or misdirected: This Charlotte is too genial, generous, sensible. Madden more often captures a pained yearning. (It’s doesn’t help that he’s prettier than her.)

The script doesn’t give sufficient attention to the movie’s potentially most interesting character, Herr Hoffmeister, and his shielded, puzzling, and perhaps conflicted motives. The movie addresses these only cursorily and too late.

A Promise is a high-toned, visually attractive, and occasionally affecting movie, but it lacks a measure of sharper-edged feeling.

Watch the trailer for A Promise

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