PROMISE AT DAWN (La promesse de l’aube)
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Eric Barbier
Screenwriters: Eric Barbier, Romain Gary, Marie Eynard
Cast: Pierre Niney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Didier Bourdon, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine McCormack, Finnegan Oldfield
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/31/19
Opens: September 6, 2019 at New York’s Quad Cinema
In an internet article by Adina Kay Gross et al “My Jewish Learning: What it means to be a Jewish mother today,” the columnists note that people think of Jewish mothers as mddle-aged women with a nasal New York accent who sweat over a steaming pot of matzo balls while screaming at their kids; or she could be the one who sits poolside in Florida jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her children into calling her more often. “She is sacrificing, yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”
The surprising thing as that the bloggers wrote this years before the release of “Promise at Dawn,” but then again, maybe Eric Barbier, who directed by picture using a script he wrote with Marie Eynard (with a posthumous credit to Romain Gary), copied the theme from that article. Nah, but it sure seems that way. “Promise at Dawn” is not simply a biopic honoring the great writer-adventurer Romain Gary, who, while not fighting the Germans from a base in England penned thirty-four novels and collaborated with Cornelius Ryan on the great war movie “The Longest Day.” It is a quintessential treatment—one of the best in recent memory—of the love-hate feelings that a demanding Jewish mother evokes from her only son—yet we can credit her for pushing her boy to be what he became, oh, just a winner of the Goncourt Prize for French literature twice. Never mind that French law prohibits the giving of such an award more than once to the same writer.
And yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers such a fierce, over the top performance as Nina Kacew, a Jewish mother that you may want to raise your champagne glass to her and say “mazel tov and Le Haim!” It helps that she’s playing against terrific performances by Pierre Niney as her son Romain Kacew, who later changes his name to Romaine Gary, and by Pawel Puchalski and Némo Schiffman as Romain from ages eight and ten and then as an adolescent respectively. Director Barbier is in his métier having served at the helm for “Le brasier” about, among other things, the relationship of father and son.
You’ll come away comparing Romain Gary to Ernest Hemingway, meaning that he was a writer who did not sit in his room pecking away at the typewriter without living life and without rugged experiences as his guide. Here is a fellow who could help land a plane during World War 2 after his pilot is blinded by an enemy bullet, and who is able even to stand up (a little, at least), to a mother who knows that her brilliant son could write prize-winning literature while serving as a French ambassador. If you’re an only son, as I am, you’ll probably relate all the more to the subject matter, perhaps swinging your view of your own mom from wanting to say “Get the hell out of my room and mind your own business” to “Mom, I love you; why don’t you come over and visit more often?”
The movie, based on Romain Gary’s best-selling autobiography of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, is framed in Mexico, opening on a celebration of Día de los muertos (you’ve seen that event in a most stunning form in the 007 movie “Spectre”). He has become exhausted while writing “Promise at Dawn,” his wife Lesley Blanch (Catherine McCormack) looking on. Changing quickly to Romain’s childhood in Vilnius in the Russian Empire where Romain’s mother Nina made a living selling hats to women (including at least one anti-Semite), the Francophone Nina moves to Nice, France, to give her son a better environment to pursue a career in literature. She opening a hotel there, taking a little time to advise her son to get a pistol, go to Berlin and kill Hitler.
During one of his early trysts with women, Romain is caught by his mother in bed with the maid leading her to fire the servant—too much competition for Nina, presumably. Romain tries to write, is rejected four times, and appears to get his mojo in the military despite being the only recruit out of 300 who does not receive stripes as a officer. “Dreyfus had it worse,” his commanding officer consoles, selecting Romain to go with him to England to continue the war. We can imagine that the officer does not relish Romain’s remaining in France after that country’s defeat as his fate as a Jewish prisoner of war would not be enviable.
I would have liked to know more about Gary’s suicide, since he does not appear a victim of serious depression, but then, as with Anthony Bourdain’s similar taking of life we may never really know. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Romain Gary, you may find that the director honors the man by following his actual life story, giving the French hero all the accolades and avoiding fictional embellishment. Gary’s mother really was like that helicopter parent, and Romain really performed heroic service in the military despite the humiliation of earning no stripes in his graduating class. Romain Gary: novelist, diplomat, film director and World War II aviator. It’s all in the movie and well-serviced especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg under the director’s period look at the twenties through the end of the war and beyond.
In French, English subtitles, filmed in Hungary, Belgium, Morocco, and Italy.
131 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-