Sarah's Key: Film Review

July 22: "Sarah's Key"
The Weinstein Company

This French drama, an adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Elle s'appelait, sees a journalist investigate a young girl's traumatic experiences in Nazi-occupied France. The film has received a lot of critical accolades and may be an awards contender in the winter.

A heartbreaking, wonderfully acted and superbly dramatized drama.

Moving gracefully across the decades and people's hidden histories, Gilles Paquet-Brenner's "Sarah's Key" (Elle s'appelait Sarah) relates a highly emotional yet unsentimental story about a Paris-based journalist digging into a Holocaust story that she discovers has a connection to her own family.

The movie gathers momentum with a steady, assured pace, accumulating incidents, characters, secrets and lies until the rush of events is absolutely transfixing. Cinema can sometimes rival the novel in compulsive intensity and Sarah's Key is one such example.

Indeed the movie is based on a best-selling novel by journalist Tatiana de Rosney, which the director and Serge Joncour have beautifully adapted to the screen. As a kind of detective story delving into the darkest pages of 20th century French history, the film should enjoy considerable success throughout Europe. The film's smash Toronto debut in September certainly justifies the Weinstein Co.'s acquisition of the film at the festival.

The story gets told in two time frames. In present day, the remarkable Kristin Scott Thomas plays American-born journalist Julia Jarmond, who is working on a magazine story about the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations of thousands of Jewish families. An equally remarkable 10-year-old actress, Melusine Mayance, plays Sarah, whose family was among those deported to the camps.

Julia's husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot), a brusque and somewhat arrogant businessman, is renovating his family's Marais-district flat as a new home for himself, his wife and their 11-year-old daughter. In her research, Julia discovers that Bertrand's family first took over the apartment when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed in that roundup.

In the parallel story, little Sarah hides her 4-year-old brother Thomas in a bedroom closet when the French police arrive. She promises to return but instead finds herself first with her parents in the atrocious Velodrome d'Hiver detention facility in Paris, then transported to a countryside camp. Desperate to rescue her brother, she manages to escape.

Back and forth the movie swings between the two time periods. Julia searches with increasing determination for scrap of information that will tell her what happened to Sarah and her family. Her surprising discoveries throw a new light on her current situation as a wife and mother forced to make crucial decisions about her future.

In uncovering the truths about the Tezac family, Julia uncovers ugly truths about her adopted country. But Sarah's Key puts human faces to tragedies that risk becoming abstractions when reduced to numbers of dead.

And the faces in this movie are remarkable. The most important one, of course, belongs to young Mayance. From innocence to terror and then sheer desperation, the youngster conveys all this with heartbreaking conviction.

In her journey she encounters a gruff farmer (that superb veteran actor Niels Arestrup), who most reluctantly comes to her aid. There are others too from a French policeman who shows kindness to a young girl who escapes with Sarah.

In Julia's story, Scott Thomas puts her character in a road to discovery in an absorbing performance. No scene, not even a moment, gets overplayed for all the natural melodrama. If young Sarah represents the film's heartbreak, then Scott Thomas' Julia represents the film's conviction that the truth must always come first.

In the contemporary sequences, Michel Duchaussoy nicely underplays her father-in-law, who is forced into a confession. As for others, to relate whom they play may be plot spoilers but Aidan Quinn, George Birt and Charlotte Poutrel all have memorable roles.

Perhaps the movie closest to this is Sophie's Choice, where the ghosts of the Holocaust maintain haunt survivors long after the war and a woman must come to terms with unimaginable guilt. This is a poignant tale of two females confronted by the madness of history.

The production is superb with Francoise Dupertuis' production design and Eric Perron's costumes always convincing in both eras while Herve Schneid's editing makes the many transitions smooth as silk.

Distributor: The Weinstein Co.
Production companies: Hugo Productions/Studio 37/TF1 Droits Audiovisuels/France 2 Cinema
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Natasha Mashkevich, Gisele Casadesus, Aidan Quinn
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenwriters: Serge Joncour, Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Based on the novel by: Tatiana de Rosnay
Producer: Stephane Marsil
Director of photography: Pascal Ridao
Production designer: Francoise Dupertuis
Music: Max Richter
Costume designer: Eric Perron
Editor: Herve Schneid
Sales: Kinology
No rating, 105 minutes