REVIEW: Discovering the painful truth of ‘Sarah’s Key’

Kristin Scott Thomas in 'Sarah's Key' -- Photo courtesy of Julien Bonet / The Weinstein Company

The versatile Kristin Scott Thomas, who is able to perform effortlessly in both the English and French language, provides an anchoring performance for ‘Sarah’s Key,’ the uneven, albeit engaging, new drama about France’s role in the Holocaust.

The story follows Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), a journalist assigned to write a magazine piece on one of the darkest chapters in French history: the 1942 raids by Parisian officials that ended with thousands of Jews placed in German concentration camps.

At the same time that Julia investigates the details of the historical incident, her family begins remodeling an apartment that has been passed down through the generations and will serve as their future home. What Julia doesn’t realize is that within the walls of her future abode lies a terrible secret that intimately ties her magazine article with her family’s history.

Back in the 1940s, a young girl by the name of Sarah (Melusine Mayance) locked her brother in a hidden wall compartment just as the police began rounding up her family and friends. What was intended as a safe haven turned into a deathtrap, and the little boy found himself stuck in the wall with no key to unlock the door (thus the title of the movie).

The coincidental connection between Julia and Sarah is probably the weakest part of the movie. It’s difficult to fathom that a journalist stumbles upon a story that so unexpectedly ties to her own family. That would be like investigating the invention of the light bulb and then realizing Thomas Edison worked in the journalist’s very own basement. It might make for interesting plot devices, but it’s far from reality.

Contrivances aside, ‘Sarah’s Key’ is an involving portrait that sheds a much-needed light on a detestable wrinkle in France’s history. The enthusiasm and rigor that Julia displays to properly tell this story is shared by the audience. Too often Holocaust stories fail to explore the passivity (and sometimes outright corruption) of Germany’s neighbors. ‘Sarah’s Key,’ which is based on a bestselling book, smartly looks into the raids that unfortunately left so many dead and so many families ripped apart. It puts the guilt on everyone.

Scott Thomas, ever the consummate actress, is exquisite in the movie. She has an air of independence that is tough to describe. Watch as she deals with her editor at the magazine: Telling the story of this lost population deserves care, expense and time, and she will settle for nothing else. The actress is able to make this dedication palpable and inspiring.

The supporting cast is equally impressive. In many ways, Mayance’s performance in the flashback scenes are just as crucial as the modern-day Paris sequences. We need to feel for Sarah’s dilemma, in order to believe the gravity of her situation. Imagine trying to save your brother’s life, and instead you set him up for a horrible fate.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who also wrote the script with Serge Joncour, is able to keep the varied plots perfectly understandable. If anything, this complicated story feels a little too formulaic, especially with the ease that the film travels back and forth between past and present. This is likely a consequence of the story line feeling too much like a manufactured plot.

The drama of this fine little film could have easily entered the realm of melodrama. The images of mothers and fathers being paraded off to concentration camps have been emblazoned on the collective pscyhe of moviegoers ever since early filmmakers started exploring the Holocaust. Making these scenes still visceral can be a challenge, but it’s absolutly imperative that films of this kind convince the viewers that these stories from the 1930s and 1940s not only deserve our heartstrings and empathy, but also our undivided attention.

We need to learn from ‘Sarah’s Key’ in order to personalize what can easily become an impersonal statistic.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Sarah’s Key

  • In French and English, with subtitles

  • 2011

  • Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner

  • Written by Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour; based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay

  • Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Melusine Mayance

  • Running time: 111 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for thematic material, including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust

  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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