“Finally Dawn” is a captivating Italian mid-century drama where Lily James shines, stealing the spotlight with her performance.

Lily James, known for her role in “Pam and Tommy,” delivers a stellar portrayal reminiscent of classic mid-century movie stars in “Finally Dawn.”

Lily James, with her enchanting presence and timeless appeal, seems destined for fairy tale roles. The 34-year-old English actress, known for her breakthrough in “Downton Abbey” and her captivating performance in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” brings her charisma to a fresh interpretation of fairy tales in “Finally Dawn.” Set against the backdrop of mid-century Rome, the film unfolds during an endless night, offering a unique twist on the classic narrative.

In “Finally Dawn,” when Mimosa (played by Rebecca Antonaci), a young Italian woman, auditions for an extra role at Rome’s Cinecatta studios, she is unexpectedly propelled into a realm inhabited by American movie stars and their unpredictable personalities. Chosen by the iconic movie star Josephine Esperanto (portrayed by Lily James) for a special elevated extra role, Mimosa embarks on an adventurous night alongside Jo, the charming but enigmatic leading man Sean Lockwood (played by Joe Keery), and the benevolent chauffeur Rufus Priori (portrayed by Willem Dafoe).

“Finally Dawn,” written and directed by Saverio Costanzo, seamlessly transitions between English and Italian languages as it portrays the surreal quality of a night that transforms into a haunting ordeal. The film’s narrative unfolds akin to the events of Babylon condensed into a single evening in Italy.

With Cinecitta’s esteemed reputation in the mid-1950s, it’s a captivating spectacle to witness its portrayal in this fictionalized setting. Costanzo adopts a whimsical yet tongue-in-cheek approach to depict the allure of the film industry. Rebecca Antonaci emerges as a compelling newcomer, her expressions mirroring the bewilderment and exhilaration she undergoes upon being thrust into a world far beyond her innocent comprehension.

In “Finally Dawn,” Lily James shines as the focal point, embodying sophistication and adopting a mid-Atlantic accent against the backdrop of Rome’s streets. Her character, Josephine, is a concoction of fictionalized elements inspired by formidable yet turbulent personalities like Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. James adeptly captures the enigmatic allure that defined these iconic screen goddesses. Draped in a ballgown and a fiery red wig, she effortlessly portrays a woman whose façade barely conceals the profound loneliness within. Josephine epitomizes both the quintessential diva and a vulnerable lost soul, and James navigates these complex layers with fervor. Despite Jo’s immature and selfish desires, she remains captivating and charming. While James has consistently delivered standout performances across contemporary and period films, this particular era seems to suit her exceptionally well.

Willem Dafoe also delivers a nuanced portrayal, balancing mischief with genuine care as Rufus Priori, a guardian figure to Mimosa, albeit one whose priorities eventually lean toward self-interest.

While “Finally Dawn” presents a narrative set in 1950s Rome, director Saverio Costanzo’s portrayal of the era often feels oddly modern. This contemporary sensibility is not evident in the film’s action or dialogue but rather in its polished aesthetic, which verges on sterility. Despite the intended portrayal of a night filled with absurd extravagance, there’s a distinct sense of detachment that hinders the film’s ability to convey the intended sense of excess.

 

Moreover, with the exception of Lily James and Willem Dafoe, the actors in “Finally Dawn” seem notably modern in their portrayal. It’s not merely a matter of adjusting their tone or adopting an old-fashioned demeanor; rather, it’s their emotional energy and mannerisms that feel contemporary. While Costanzo aims to depict a narrative set in the past, he falls short in refining the nuanced details that breathe life into period pieces, leaving the film feeling more staged than vibrant.

Furthermore, at 140 minutes, the film indulges excessively in its length. While it aims to convey the endlessness of Mimosa’s chaotic night and evoke empathy for her entrapment in this increasingly frenzied and perilous world, the pacing is so awkward that it becomes challenging to remain engaged, leading viewers to check their watches rather than fully immerse themselves in the narrative. Trimming 20 to 30 minutes could have resulted in a more impactful viewing experience. Although “Finally Dawn” offers a surreal exploration of coming-of-age through the lens of cinema, and Lily James delivers a captivating portrayal of the movie star chaos at its core, it struggles to overcome its meandering script and superficial portrayal of the era.

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