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.

Eric Barbier
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.

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

  • Beatriz Bodegas on Netflix Original: ‘Who

    ‘Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?’ Producer on New Spanish Netflix Original

    BARCELONA – “Who Would You Take to a Desert Island?” is the second directorial outing from Spain’s Jota Linares (“Animales sin collar”) a Netflix Original premiering on Friday, March 22 in competition at the Malaga Spanish Language Film Festival. Starring María Pedraza, Jaime Lorente, Pol Monen and Andrea Ros, the film is the movie adaptation [...]

  • Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne'

    Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne,' Kurosawa Screening Series

    The upcoming Beijing International Film Festival will give space to high profile Hollywood franchise movies with screenings of all films in both the “Mad Max” and “Bourne Identity” series. Classic Hollywood fare will also feature prominently in a line-up that, as usual, features an eclectic grab bag of titles. The local government-backed festival opens April [...]

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content