Charlotte Gainsbourg has a great role and makes the most of it in “Promise at Dawn,” based on the 1960 autobiographical novel by the late renowned writer Romain Gary. Gainsbourg plays Nina, Romain’s mother, who is both a mother from hell and a loving one who devotes her life to wanting success and fame for him, but setting such demanding standards that he reels from the constant pressure he faces along with the maternal love and dedication. Gainsbourg succeeds in communicating the complexity of Nina’s character in a performance that merits award consideration.
Directed by Eric Barbier from a screenplay by Barbier and Marie Eynard, the film is very broad in recounting Romain’s story that entwines fact and fiction. (Jules Dassin directed an earlier adaptation released in 1971 and starring Melina Mercouri.) We see Romain’s growing up phase in Eastern Europe, where Nina, instills rosy visions of moving to France in him. She insists that he will one day become a successful diplomat, famous writer and romantic attraction to the ladies. Pawel Puchalski plays Romain from age 8-10 and Nemo Schiffman is Romain between 14 and 16. One of the funniest scenes is when his mother walks in on him when he is having sex for the first time and she flies into rage at the sight of his escapade.
The going is tough for Nina, who inflates her background as having been an actress in Russia, takes on airs but works as a seamstress. Despite her attempts at grandeur, she is looked down upon as being poor and is faced with anti-Semitism.
Pierre Niney is remarkable in his portrayal of the grown Romain, who carries in his mind the image of his mother’s love and pressure as he goes through various adventures in life. True to her ambitions, Nina moves to Nice with the young Romain. In the course of the saga he becomes an airman in World War II fighting with the Free French, but he is prevented from becoming an officer as a result of anti-Semitism.
Eventually Romain has a nervous breakdown. The role is extremely demanding and Niney succeeds in depicting the character’s mix of determination, pain and love for his mother but also harboring resentment. In the screenplay he receives letter after letter from his mother as he recuperates from his breakdown, but eventually learns a secret regarding those letters.
“Promise at Dawn” suffers some from being overlong at 133 minutes, but the total effect is profound as a result of the scope and the lead performances. Underlying it all is our knowledge of Romain Gary’s eventual success as a writer. What is not dramatized in the film is his marriage to Jean Seberg, who committed suicide in 1979 and when Gary also took his own life in 1980 at the age of 66. We do get to meet his first wife, Lesley Branch, played by Catherine McCormack, when at the start of the film the two are in Mexico and Romain feels he is dying, the take-off point for a flashback into Romain’s turbulent story.
What we get is an adaptation of Romain’s novel, and the dynamics of a mother-son relationship for the ages. In filming the drama, director Barbier loads the screen with period atmosphere, effective cinematography, excellent supporting performances and the look of the period during which the story evolves. A Menemsha films release. Reviewed September 4, 2019.