Director: Gilles Pacquet-Brenner
Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup
Plot: Whilst investigating The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in 1942, an American journalist in present-day Paris discovers a story involving a Jewish girl whose family was caught up in the horrifying events.
Kristin Scott Thomas has a varied filmography. Arguably her two most famous roles, that of Fiona in Four Weddings and Katharine Clifton in The English Patient, launched her into the consciousness of cinema-goers. What you may not know is that, despite her very English name and upbringing, from the age of 19 she has spent most of time living in Paris and has consequently become a regular staple of French cinema. I’ve Loved You So Long and Tell No One displayed her fluency, but also proved that there is room elsewhere for British actors and actresses outside their own country aside from Hollywood.
Sarah’s Key stars Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American journalist researching an article on the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, which involved the mass eviction of Jews out of German-occupied Paris in 1942, decreed by the Nazis but carried out by the French police. The chronology jumps back and forth between Julia’s investigations and the story of Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a Jew whose family were torn asunder by the raids. Sarah’s family receives a visit from the police at their apartment and are told to leave immediately. Prior to being shepherded out of their home, Sarah manages to usher her brother Michel (Paul Mercier) into a closet in the living room and locks the door to prevent the police from taking him too.
The Starzynskis are sent to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium where thousands of other Jews have been herded and made to wait in unsanitary conditions. Sarah reveals that she still has the key to the closet and becomes increasingly desperate to return to the apartment and save Michel. The family is split as they are eventually sent to different camps amid scenes of chaos – her parents are sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and she must try to escape from the Beaune-la-Rolande camp and return home. Meanwhile, in present-day France, Julia makes a series of shocking discoveries about what happened to Sarah and her brother, whilst also finding that their lives are intertwined more closely than she could ever have imagined.
Sarah’s Key, whilst not in the same league as Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, is a very poignant, moving and involving drama. Obviously it is Sarah’s story that will grab you the most as it is by far the most affecting – Mélusine Mayance is excellent in the title role and her emotional performance is finely balanced to include a loss of innocence but also a fine portrayal of the awareness that her character’s brother is first and foremost her chief concern. The atmosphere of war-torn France is beautifully imagined, especially the harrowing scenes in the camps, but the use of cinematography in the countryside is terrific.
Julia’s story is thought-provoking, but doesn’t pack the same punch as the 1940′s plot, but Kristin Scott Thomas holds this part of the film together very well. In less accomplished hands, the role of Julia may have been diluted to the point of corny, although Scott Thomas does well to speak French fluently while holding a decent American accent. Some critics have pointed to the present-day sub-plot almost as a diversion from the more interesting historical events – this is true to a certain extent, but such is the unavoidable contrast in style between the two timelines, that they actually complement one another.
There are better films about The Holocaust, but Sarah’s Key is well worth a watch if you want to learn more about a lesser-known and heart-breaking chapter in the history of the Second World War.