Set in Germany in the years leading up towards the First World War, Rickman and Hall play aristocratic husband and wife Karl and Lotte Hoffmeister, respectively, who welcome the former’s ambitious new work colleague Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden) into their home. Though within just a few days, the guest discovers he has strong feelings for his employer’s wife, and while she feels exactly the same way, they remain reluctant to act upon it. However when Friedrich is ushered away on a business trip to Mexico, they make a vow that upon his return, they’ll find a way to be together at last.
Though it is somewhat refreshing to see a more understated romantic narrative, with no true affection shared between the protagonists throughout – their secret signals are overtly unsubtle, and the countless glances, or just the cliched way they first meet (she’s walking down the stairs and he’s stopped still, mouth slightly opened, like a horny teenager awaiting his date for prom night), it’s all too cinematic to fully invest in. The dialogue feels somewhat stilted too, while Leconte oddly implements a shaky, handheld camera technique in the early stages. It feels entirely out of place in the period drama setup, and worst of all, it’s inconsistent, as it appears to have been ignored in the second half of the feature, as though the director realised it wasn’t working and just decided to scrap it. There’s nothing wrong with being adventurous and unconventional, yet Leconte remains so archetypal of the costume drama genre in every other department, that any deviation away from that becomes glaringly obvious in how out of place it seems.
We also don’t get any feel for the era or setting at hand – which begs the question of why this needed to be set in Germany. Given we’re to suspend our disbelief as all of the actors converse in well-spoken, English dialogue – it makes you wonder why it couldn’t just be set over here. Not that it’s a huge problem as such, but it does become somewhat detrimental in the latter stages, as when the First World War kicks in and the divide between the two nations becomes so prominent and perceptible, it’s a struggle to identify our protagonists as being one or the other.
On a more positive note, Rickman is the best thing about this picture, and is so perfectly cast as Karl. Mostly it’s because he has this inherent, inquisitive nature about the way he delivers speech – he could order a sandwich and sound suspicious of the bread, making him the ideal character to be cheated on, as it brings around an incredible amount of suspense every time he speaks to Lotte or Friedrich. He also has this slight smirk creeping out the corner of his mouth throughout, though sadly the only you can read into that, is to imagine that he’s as fully aware that this film simply isn’t very good, as we are.