When a French filmmaker travels to Belgium to film a German story in English, it's hardly surprising that the resulting movie feels somewhat awkward. Fortunately, the filmmaker in question is the detail-oriented Patrice Leconte (The Widow of Saint-Pierre), and he's working with a fine British cast that makes the most of even the stiffest dialogue. It may all feel rather superficial, but the plot is packed with surprising twists and some real emotion.
It's set in 1912 Germany, where young engineer Friedrich (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) quickly impresses his sardonic boss Karl (Alan Rickman) at the steelworks, and is promoted to be his personal assistant. When Karl is bedridden with a heart problem, Friedrich moves from his squalid garret into Karl's elegant manor house, taking on extra responsibilities as a tutor for Karl's son. He also catches the eye of Karl's much younger wife Lotte (Rebecca Hall). Their attraction is clearly mutual, but both are naturally afraid to say anything about it. And when they finally do, it's just as Friedrich is about to head off to Mexico for a two-year assignment. So they vow to wait to act on their forbidden love until he gets back. Then the Great War breaks out, and their reunion is delayed, seemingly indefinitely.
Intriguingly, there's a sense that Karl invited Friedrich into his home as a replacement both at the factory and as Lotte's husband. This emerges mainly in subtext through Rickman's clever performance, which bristles with wit and emotional energy, effortlessly stealing the focus from the central romance. Madden is suitably likeable as Friedrich, although it's difficult to understand why he is so besotted with Lotte when he already has a devoted girlfriend (Shannon Tarbet) whose only flaw seems to be that she's a bit clingy. Meanwhile, Hall gives a terrific turn as a young woman whose stiff upper lift obscures a near-bursting passion, which she channels into haunting piano playing that echoes through the house, tormenting both Karl and Friedrich.
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