Title: Sarah’s Key
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Frederic Pierrot, Niels Arestrup, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Aidan Quinn
War stories are often terrible and grim, but their high moral contrast allows room to compellingly highlight some of the best instincts and aspects of humanity, alongside the worst. Set against the backdrop of one of those amazingly under-told stories of real-life history, the compelling and pedigreed Sarah’s Key, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, is a sort of cold-case ancestral mystery, except rooted in character and told with an admirable self-discipline often lacking in thematically similar films.
The story centers around Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), an American magazine journalist married to a Frenchman, Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot), and living in Paris with he and their daughter. Tasked with writing an article about the notorious Vel d’Hiv round-up of over 10,000 Jews which took place in the city in 1942, Julia learns that the apartment her family is about to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its original Jewish occupants were rounded up and deported. Digging deeper, Julia presses Bertrand’s father, Edouard (Michel Duchaussoy), who was a boy at the time, for more information.
Intercut with this present day material is one story of one of the objects of Julia’s investigation, Sarah (Melusine Mayance), a young Jewish girl who is cruelly separated from her parents at an internment camp, but then escapes with a friend, finally seeking refuge with a reluctantly helpful French couple, Jules and Genevieve Dufaure (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot). Racked with a strange guilt she’s not able to entirely articulate, Julia becomes obsessed with the mystery of Sarah and her younger brother, and whether they might somehow still be alive. After several dead ends, Julia eventually tracks down a man, William (Aidan Quinn), whom she believes can help put her investigation to rest, but his assertions end up raising another question.
Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s three-million-copy-selling novel of the same name, the film that Sarah’s Key will likely most immediately draw comparisons to might be Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, another World War II adaptation centering around Nazis and dark secrets. Sarah’s Key, though, lacks that movie’s portentous self-importance, and it doesn’t bathe in pathos. It’s hardly upbeat, but the split structure, between past and present day, serves the material well, and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner threads his film with an emotional restraint that gives it room to breathe.
Another way of saying this, of course, is that Sarah’s Key unfolds with all the vagaries and pockets of slack one might expect to find in an adaptation of historical fiction. And it’s true that it does take a bit of an emotional adjustment to submit to the movie’s waxing and waning rhythms, and it also does occasionally lose its way — most often in awkwardly attempting to shoehorn in a subplot involving Julia’s unplanned pregnancy. Very much a literary device, and oh so ripe with metaphorical significance, this narrative strand never really comes together in a satisfactory way, and could have been jettisoned without damaging the film’s poignance. There’s also a deathbed-type familial confession that is dispiritingly on-the-nose, and almost a cliche of such scenes. If it’s lifted from the book it’s unfortunate and myopic case of fidelity; if it’s invented, it’s incredibly contrived and lazy.
That said, fine performances and an artful, emotional modulation make this drama feel real and lived in rather than mawkish. Scott Thomas’ fine bilingual performance anchors Sarah’s Key, but the real revelation is Mayance, who is natural and heartbreaking as the young Sarah. Her character, and performance, are each a reminder of the ancillary horrors of war — of innocence ripped away from children who should be protected for as long as possible from the malice and brutality of the world.
Written by: Brent Simon