‘Promise at Dawn’ Review: An Extraordinary Life, Thanks to Mom

A sprawling, well-appointed epic directed by Eric Barbier, “Promise at Dawn” both exudes and critiques self-regard. The charitable view is that Romain Gary, the author of the book it is based on, led a life extraordinary enough to warrant the grandiosity. Beyond his literary accomplishments, he was a World War II aviator, a diplomat, a filmmaker and the husband of Jean Seberg.

The book has been taken as a fictionalized memoir in which the less-than-trustworthy Gary credits his success to his determined mother, Nina (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, speaking French and Polish). Through toughness and clever bluffing, she removes him from the drabness and anti-Semitism of Vilna to a life of comfort in Nice, always, always reminding him that his mission is to become a great writer.

The narrative might have a layer of irony on the page, but onscreen, the protagonist’s refraction of each incident through its impact on his monomaniacal mom has a slightly ludicrous quality. Addressing the possibility that France could lose the war, Romain (played as an adult by Pierre Niney) narrates, “My mother would never survive such a defeat.” When a well-timed phone call from Nina prevents Romain from getting on a plane that goes up in flames: “My mother had saved me once again.” (The movie, as is typical, moves on without consideration for anyone else on board.)

Stylistically, “Promise at Dawn” plays as if it’s been processed through a prestige-ifier: The sweeping camera movements and Max Richter music push all the right emotional buttons. The movie looks and sounds great, but greatness and depth elude it.

Promise at Dawn

Not rated. In French, Polish and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes.

Promise at Dawn

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