On paper, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner's Sarah's Key has a curious lack of potential for being yet another Holocaust Drama. The plot, about a crusading journalist in contemporary times who uncovers a personal connection with one of France's most regrettable past tragedies, is based on a best selling novel which seems to have all the earmarks of an "inspiring" Oprah's Book Club selection. Luckily, the film itself is a generally satisfying and absorbing tale with some excellent performances to recommend it.
Sarah's Key opens in 1942 Paris, as a small apartment occupied by a Jewish family with the name Starzynski is raided by the police. The parents (played by Natasha Mashkevich and Arben Bajraktaraj) are flustered by the sudden intrusion, but their 10 year-old daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) has enough presence of mind to quickly lock her younger brother inside a secret compartment in the kids' bedroom. The three Starzynskis are taken to a converted bike racing atrium, interned with other terrified Jews. Although some find ways to escape the horrifically unsanitary conditions, most of the internees are separated by sex and age to be shipped off to internment camps in the country and (eventually) the Nazi concentration camps in Germany. Sarah and her mother are sent to once such French camp that houses children and their moms in separate quarters. Key in hand, the preoccupied girl desperately tries to find a way to get back to Paris to free her brother.
Meanwhile, in present-day Paris, American magazine journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is preparing to write an article on the notorious 1942 Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of Jews in World War II. The article is a tough sell, since even her supposedly educated younger colleagues have no knowledge of the event. While attempting to get a good angle on the story, she and her French husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) are moving into the apartment that once housed Bertrand's family. Julia is stunned to find that the apartment once belonged to some victims of the WWII roundup - the Starzynkskis. Piece by piece, she uncovers the story of the family and the destiny of the little girl, Sarah, who survived the atrocity.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Sarah's Key really excels during the visceral and unsparing World War II-set scenes, such as when Mayance's Sarah attempts to escape the camp with another young internee. The frightened but crafty Sarah talks a camp guard into letting the girls escape under a barbed wire fence. They make their way to a small village, where Nazi vehicles patrol through the nighttime streets. An older couple reluctantly takes them in, but Sarah's friend soon succumbs to diptheria. After the older couple's home is raided, a desperate Sarah convinces them to take her to Paris to retrieve her brother (if he's still trapped in the secret compartment, that is). The disguised-as-a-boy Sarah manages to elude authorities and makes it to the apartment, now occupied by another family. The boy kept his word to Sarah to stay put, but he is found dead.
Back in the present day, Julia uncovers more info for her story - and a shocking personal connection with the Starzynskis. As she and her husband are moving into the renovated apartment owned by her husband's family, she finds that the couple's new digs was the scene of Sarah's horrific discovery several decades earlier. Her husband's father witnessed the scene as a young boy. The development sends shock waves through Julia's already tenuous relationship with her husband, Bertrand. Complicating matters is the news that she is pregnant. Julia decides to pursue finding out what happened to Sarah after the war, possibly even meeting the woman if she's still living, despite Bertrand's protestations.
At this point, the film deals more with Julia uncovering Sarah's eventual fate as she tracks down Sarah's husband, now ailing and having remarried and relocated to upstate New York. Through beautifully filmed flashbacks, we learn that Sarah lived a haunted life as a young woman (effectively played by actress Charlotte Poutrel), never getting over the loss of her brother. She married an American, bore a child, then died under mysterious circumstances in the '60s. The details of her death are a guarded secret in the family, even shielded from Sarah's son, William. Julia eventually makes a trip to Florence, Italy, where the now grown William (played by Aidan Quinn) lives. While he is initially reluctant to deal with Julia, the two eventually bond and reach a sense of closure over the painful history their families share.
Sarah's Key plays a bit like two films in one. The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup scenes are memorably intense, visceral filmmaking that recalls Schindler's List in spots. In these scenes and the French concentration camp segments, one senses that director Gilles Paquet-Brenner wanted to expose a side of French history that most would rather forget (this was the Parisian police committing atrocities on their own people, remember). He also gets some remarkably expressive work from Mélusine Mayance, the child actress who plays young Sarah. These WWII scenes are terrifically effective and evocative of the period.
The modern day scenes mostly work due to Kristen Scott Thomas' nuanced performance. Her characterization of Julia as a stubborn, flawed, vulnerable woman fits in with her well-received French language performances in I've Love You For So Long (2008) and Leaving (2009). As the film gets to the halfway mark, however, one gets the feeling that Sarah's Key is hobbled with the Julie & Julia problem of having a contemporary story that suffers in comparison to the richer, grittier and more satisfying period story. Not helping matters at all is the unbelievably sappy, mawkish ending - call me cynical, but the film would have been so much more worthwhile without the final five minutes.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Sarah's Key sports a single Dolby digital 5.1 soundtrack which is serviceably balanced and clear. Subtitles are automatic for this mostly French-language film, but the disc also contains English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired along with a Spanish subtitle option.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is rich and nicely balanced for a film that mostly relies on muted outdoor lighting and subtle, non-shrill colors for both the historical and contemporary scenes.
The sole extra on the DVD is the Making of Sarah's Key Featurette, about an hour of casually shot behind-the-scenes footage which mostly focuses on the period recreations. Missing is the U.S. trailer, which bizarrely made the film look like an American drama starring Aidan Quinn. A paper insert advertises Tatiana De Rosnay's source novel of the same name.
Couched in an increasingly not-so-absorbing contemporary story (complete with hokey, Hallmark-style finale), Sarah's Key is still a worthwhile watch. Kristin Scott Thomas delivers another of her flawed but fascinating heroines, and the film's unsparing look at a lesser-known tragedy of World War II is beautifully rendered. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.