Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Aidan Quinn, Niels Arestrup
Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Serge Joncour, Tatiana De Rosnay
The Weinstein Company
Based upon a worldwide bestseller by Tatiana de Rosnay, the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award-winning film Sarah's Key is a profoundly moving film that somehow manages to be both awesomely inspiring and achingly tragic.
Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist living in Paris in 2002 with her French husband and teenaged daughter. She convinces her magazine to allow her to write a significant piece based upon the 60th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv events during the early years of World War II.
On July 16, 1942, French police and military rounded up 13,000 Jews and, much like cattle, herded them into confined quarters without water and without toileting facilities in one of the cities indoor bicycle-racing tracks (velodromes). The majority of these individuals were subsequently shipped off to transit camps and, ultimately, to Auschwitz ... BY THE FRENCH.
While the characters contained within Sarah's Key are fictional, the events that comprise the film's foundation are not. The film alternates between 2002 and the events that occurred in 1942 with a specific focus on the Starzynski family. 10-year-old Sarah (a magnificent Melusine Mayance) lives in the Marais district of Paris with her mother, father and younger brother, Michel (Paul Mercier). When the police arrive at their door with instructions to bring only bare necessities and three days worth of food, Sarah attempts to protect her younger brother by hiding him in a locked hidden cupboard until she returns for him. It is only when the family arrives at the velodrome that they begin to grasp that they will likely not return home and Sarah, panic stricken at having left her brother locked up, begins a series of increasingly desperate actions designed to return to her brother in order to unlock the cupboard.
The "conflict" in the film, beyond the obvious conflict contained within the velodrome, comes in 2002 as Julia discovers a secret in her husband's family that may potentially reveal their family's indirect, or even direct, impact upon the events in 1942.
Sarah's Key works best when it is set in 1942, partly owing to young Melusine Mayance's utterly magnificent performance as the vulnerable yet determined Sarah. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner is painfully honest and painstakingly detailed in portraying the horrors that Sarah and her family, along with thousands of others, endured inside the velodrome and once they were transferred to the transit camp. While history tells us that their final destination was Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Sarah's Key does not take us that far. It does, however, take us into harrowing scenes of family separation and devastating illness. It also, perhaps mercifully, takes us into fleeting moments of kindness by both fellow Jews and compassionate French people, including soldiers, who risked their lives and defied orders. Natasha Mashkevich is electrifying as Sarah's mother, revealing simultaneous moments of panic and a fiercely protective maternal nature. Arben Bajraktaraj is similarly terrific as her father, who initially expects that he will be the only one taken.
While Kristin Scott Thomas gives a tremendous performance as Julia, Sarah's Key loses quite a bit of its resonance and impact when the time shifts to the early 20th century. While the story is intriguing, especially once Julia starts to piece together Sarah's story, much of the dialogue feels contrived and, given the remarkable depth of the relationships in the 40's, the relationships in the 21st century feel rather trivial. Julia has "important" conversations with her professional peers and husband, but they pale in comparison and leave little lasting impact. Additionally, as Julia starts to discover the truth of all that happened to Sarah the film takes several winding turns that feel increasingly unconvincing and even a tad pretentious. Aidan Quinn does a great job as a key figure in the story, but by the time we reach him the story feels like we've gone a couple points past the actual stopping point.
Sarah's Key is shot in both English and French, and despite not being fluent in French I found myself far more deeply involved in the French language scenes. D.P. Pascal Ridao shot the 1942 scenes with a handheld camera, and the impact of these scenes is astounding as this approach adds a fluidity to much of the chaos and panic that literally takes the breath away. Max Richter's original score serves as a perfect companion to the film, while Francoise Dupertuise's production design is almost jarring in its impact.
Sarah's Key is ultimately about the role of history in our lives and whether or not it must determine our future, a theme made all the more powerful given the magnitude of the tragedies that unfolded time and time again during World War II and during events that have unfolded since. While the film loses some of its impact as Julia becomes more and more the focus, Sarah's Key is a film that has stayed with me for days after viewing it as Sarah's actions, words and ultimate resolution haunt me still.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic