×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Promise at Dawn’

The second film adaptation of Romain Gary's epic memoir is a patchy but diverting melange of pathos, comedy and ripe Camembert.

Director:
Eric Barbier
With:
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pierre Niney

2 hours 10 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5061360/

However abetted by fiction, Romain Gary’s autobiographical novel “Promise at Dawn” is more of a roaring yarn than most memoirs have a right to be: Covering over 20-odd years in the celebrated French author’s early life, it’s a bildungsroman that covers pluckily overcome poverty in Poland, sensual education in the south of France and WWII aviation derring-do in Africa and Europe, its many colorful vignettes sewn through by the fierce love between Gary and his vivacious single mother Nina. It’s a story that, from its publication in 1960, veritably begged to be a movie, and it’s perhaps a shame that Gary, also a filmmaker in his own right, never took a stab at it himself. Jules Dassin caught only part of the book’s magic in his 1970 adaptation; now, Eric Barbier’s long, sometimes lively, sometimes lumbering version isn’t really an improvement.

Which is not to say that this expensively revived “Promise at Dawn,” premiering in rather low-key fashion at the Busan Film Festival, is a bust. Barbier (“Le brasier,” “The Last Serpent”) has delivered an old-fashioned, triple-decker jambon et fromage sandwich of a movie: thickly piled with ripe incident and grand overacting, running the tonal gamut from teary melodrama to bawdy farce to gung-ho adventure and back again, it’s cinema that fills you up even as you question its nutritional value. The combination of still-treasured source material and the star casting of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Pierre Niney as mother and son should serve “Promise” well domestically when it opens in France shortly before Christmas; internationally, its a less sure commercial prospect, though still glossily accessible enough to land widespread distribution.

Where Dassin’s more compressed film essentially repackaged Gary’s story as a glowing star vehicle for the director’s wife Melina Mercouri, Barbier’s adaptation — running a luxuriant 130 minutes — lands a shade closer to the book’s wandering, episodic spirit. The jaundiced poetry and self-effacing wit of Gary’s writing, on the other hand, only sporadically trickle through its decorative surface — which, thanks to meticulous work by cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert and production designer Pierre Renson, exudes the light gleam of freshly polished vintage silver throughout.

The film’s intermittent framing scenes, covering the tortured creation of the book itself, are its hokiest. Introducing viewers to a dissolute middle-aged Gary (Niney, rather oversalting the ham) as he and his stalwart first wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) weather an overnight medical scare in Mexico, it pads out a less explicit reflective voice from the novel to little benefit beyond some picturesque establishing shots of Día de los Muertos festivities. Matters improve once the timeline reels back to snow-caked, Polish-annexed Vilnius circa 1924, initiating the mother-son romance at the heart of the narrative, and introducing Gainsbourg, cast brashly against type, as Gary’s capricious, adoring, impossibly demanding ma.

An alleged Russian theater dame turned cash-strapped seamstress, Nina reassigns most of her own shattered ambitions to the 10-year-old Gary (born Roman Kacew), bragging to all who’ll listen that he’ll grow up to be a great writer, a decorated general, a French ambassador, a Knight of the Legion of Honor and a ladies’ man to boot. (When the kid shows an aptitude for painting, however, she couldn’t approve less: “Talent didn’t help van Gogh and Gauguin during their lives,” she sniffs.) Her outsize dreams set the template for Gary’s rich, restless life story, lived in constant pursuit of those unreasonably set targets.

The young Gary — engagingly played as a child by Pawel Puchalski and as a teen by Nemo Schiffman, before Niney takes the baton — is buffeted by his mother’s whims with a mixture of devotion and bemusement. The first half of this itinerant film is dominated by Nina’s entertainingly eccentric schemes, from posing as a Parisian-approved couturier in Poland to finding her roundabout calling as a hotelier in idyllic, sun-soaked 1930s Nice. Gainsbourg, whose filmography has been dominated by more intensely introverted roles, evidently relishes a rare opportunity to play larger than life. Still, it’s her default vulnerability as an actor that saves the character from becoming entirely insufferable — even as Nina’s unflagging knack for popping up at the least welcome intervals in her growing son’s life reaches sitcom levels of running jokery.

Once Niney takes over as the adult Gary, the balance of storytelling tilts in favor of his alternately charmed and cursed exploits. His up-and-down military career dominates the film’s latter half, though even within this realm, the tone and scope of events ping-pong between socially conscious drama (as Gary is penalized in the French army for his Jewishness) to epic-scale air-force action (culminating in some vertigo-inducing CG aerial bombing sequences) to such overtly silly japes as a duel with an English soldier over an airhead poetess. (As the latter, incidentally, “Downton Abbey” star Zoe Boyle gives the film its most concentrated spell of comic effervescence, earning ensemble MVP status in mere minutes.)

It’s all a bit of a rambling lark, working toward an inevitable, glaringly telegraphed tearjerker of a resolution that gets the desired response, however clunky the setup. Nothing here sticks to the soul the way Gary’s prose does, and the natty Niney doesn’t quite project the internal passion and pain needed to fire the film through its stodgier interludes. (When rising star Finnegan Oldfield briefly shows up as one of Gary’s air force frenemies, it’s tempting to imagine the two actors trading roles.) Still, rather like the doughty Nina herself, “Promise at Dawn” powers through thick and thin on the strength of its own determination: Its airs of greatness may be endearing, but don’t mask the scrappy striver beneath.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Promise at Dawn'

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (World Cinema), Oct. 15, 2017. (Original title: "La promesse de l'aube")

Production: (France-Belgium) A Jerico production in coproduction with Pathe, TF1 Films Production, Nexus Factory, Umedia, Lorette Cinema in association with Ufund. (International sales: Pathe International, Paris.) Producers: Eric Jehelmann, Philippe Rousselet, Jérôme Seydoux. Executive producer: Jean-Jacques Albert. Co-producers: Romain Le Grand, Vivien Aslanian, Jonathan Blumental, Sylvain Goldberg, Serges de Poucques.

CREW: Director: Eric Barbier. Screenplay: Barbier, Marie Eynard, adapted from the novel by Romain Gary. Camera (color, widescreen): Glynn Speeckaert. Editor: Jennifer Auge.

With: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Pierre Niney, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield, Pawel Puchalski, Nemo Schiffman, Zoe Boyle. (French, English, Polish, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content