No bodices were harmed in veteran French filmmaker Patrice Leconte’s chaste and bloodless English-language debut, a love-triangle costume drama that never sparks the artful sensuality found in his earlier hits like The Girl on the Bridge, Ridicule, or The Hairdresser’s Husband.
Perhaps diluted in translation, this awkwardly scripted adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past casts Anglo-Saxon actors in Belgium as an austere stand-in for cusp-of-WWI Germany. Recognizing ingenuity and dedication in his newest employee, steelworks baron Karl Hoffmeister (Alan Rickman, stately and bored) quickly promotes modest engineering prodigy Friedrich Zeitz (Richard Madden, a handsome wet noodle) to be his personal secretary.
Herr Hoffmeister confides in his protégé that he’s gravely ill, just as Friedrich befriends the boss’s elegant wife, Lotte (Rebecca Hall, noodle No. 2), and offers to tutor their urchin. By the time the young man is invited to live in the family manor, we’re meant to feel the danger of a smoldering sexual tension between Hall and Madden’s repressed never-touching (he sniffs the piano keys where she tickled out Beethoven: yow!).
However, the magnetism between these stiff nonstarters wouldn’t stick to a fridge, especially when the war-ex-machina forces them apart for years but the only credible passing of time is our own.