When The Promise hit French screens in January 2021, over a third of the country’s viewing population tuned in. The first episode alone captured 7.5 million viewers – the biggest French television debut in six years. Now the six-part mystery, created by Spiral veterans Gaëlle Bellan and Anne Landois, is coming to thrill and chill SBS audiences. Does it deserve the hype?
The Promise takes place across two time periods, raising the curtain on Boxing Day, 1999. While a vicious storm ravages the countryside, 11-year-old Charlotte is kidnapped. A confession is quickly wrung out of teenage suspect Tony Andreï (Jules Houplain) but veteran detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal, Elite Squad) is convinced that local man Serge Fouquet (Guy Lecluyse) is the culprit.
With both the police and the community desperate for a quick resolution, Castaing is thrown off the force but vows to find the real villain no matter how long it takes. Nonetheless, he cautions his teenage daughter, Sarah, not to end up like him.
20 years later, it’s clear that she didn’t listen, as Captain Sarah Castaing (Sofia Essaïdi, Aïcha) is now a cop like her father and finds herself investigating a case with startling similarities to the kidnapping that obsessed him. With Castaing senior long in his grave, Sarah has a chance to redeem his reputation and put a real predator behind bars – but will her drive to do so upend her life like her father’s before her?
With its dour tone and split-timeline narrative, The Promise might evoke memories of the US series True Detective, and the notion of a police officer carrying on an investigation long after it’s gone cold invites comparisons to Sean Penn’s The Pledge. However, The Promise is its own beast. Not merely a procedural, it’s a study of obsession and heredity, wrestling with the question of whether we’re doomed not only to repeat our own past mistakes, but those of our parents.
Director Laure de Butler (Profiling) keeps the mood grim and the action moving along at a rapid clip, but the writing is the star here, and it’s fascinating to watch how the two Castaings’ actions parallel each other even as they take place two decades apart. In 1999, Pierre blows off his wife, Ines (Nadia Farès, The Crimson Rivers) to pursue his quarry; in 2021, Sarah does the same to her fiancé, Nico (Xavier Robic). With a main suspect already in her sights, the tension comes not only from whether or not justice will be served, but what price pursuing it will demand of our heroine.
Largely unknown outside of France, Sofia Essaïdi is genuinely impressive in the role of Sarah, presenting a façade of consummate professionalism while occasionally allowing us to see the all-consuming obsessions that drive her. While she appears to be a much more focused and professional investigator than her hard-bitten, unkempt old man, in action and intent Sarah is a mirror of her late father, just as likely to put the demands of her job ahead of her personal life as he was.
All of which makes The Promise as much a character study as a thriller, privileging the psychology of its characters as much as the mystery that drives its plot. Anyone looking for a genuinely gripping police procedural need look no further; The Promise is top-tier crime fiction and deserves to be as big a hit here as it was in its native France.
The Promise premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS On Demand on Thursday 30 December.