The theme of suppressed, often unrequited longing is a popular one for French director Leconte (The Hairdresser's Husband; Monsieur Hire) but his first film in English lacks romantic chemistry and structural coherence.
The script, much of which is crisply and intelligently written, adapts a novella, posthumously published and not highly regarded, by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig about a young metallurgist (Madden, from Game of Thrones) who gets a job with an ageing, ailing steel tycoon Karl Hoffmeister (Rickman).
The newcomer is speedily promoted in the company and simultaneously prospers in the affections of Hoffmeister's lonely young wife (Hall). Before long steamy passions are simmering beneath the satin and starched cotton.
Leconte's decision to cast British actors because he doesn't speak German (the film, shot in Belgium, is set in Germany) lends an exquisite English restraint to the seething emotions, so a glance or a raised eyebrow can have the power of a gunshot; Rickman, a study in tired ennui, and Hall, who so impressed in the RSC production of The Winter's Tale that toured here in 2009, are particularly impressive at conveying their characters' locked-in lives,
But there's a fatal shortage of chemistry between Frau Hoffmeister and her suitor, who is so wet he seems in danger of drowning. The story's third quarter, in which the young couple are separated, inevitably consists of letters read in voiceover, which makes for a sluggish pace, by contrast with the first half, which is edited with a breathlessness that makes one expect an ad break at any moment. The ending, too, which as far as I can gather grievously betrays the original, feels abrupt and too tidy. The whole is less than the sum of some excellent parts.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Alan Rickman, Richard Madden
Director: Patrice Leconte
Running Time: 98 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes)
Verdict: Tale of seething, suppressed passion lacks chemistry and structure