This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 3rd April 2011
Long before her appearance in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Kristin Scott Thomas was performing in French films and television plays, and in nearly 30 years has proven time and again one of the greatest and most versatile British actresses. Along with quintessentially English roles in the likes of Gosford Park and The English Patient, Scott Thomas’s bilingual ability has garnered her lead parts in critically acclaimed French films. Naturally, her French is accentless – the one exception being in the excellent I’ve Loved You So Long, for which she was actually required to sound like an Englishwoman returning to France after years away.
In Sarah’s Key (based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) she plays Julia, an American journalist living in Paris (this time showcasing a subtly faultless American accent). Julia stumbles upon a family secret that ties into a piece of history she has previously studied, that of the Vel d’Hiv round-up of more than 13,000 Parisian Jews in 1942 and their subsequent deportation, by their fellow countrymen, to the Nazi death camps.
The film flits between Julia’s contemporary search for a truth that risks upsetting her family and destroying her marriage, and the affecting historical story of a young girl (Sarah) separated from her family and carrying a terrible emotional burden which drives her own narrative. Writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does a good job of managing his two casts, the discrete settings and related plots. The production design is spot-on, dropping you straight into the turmoil and uncertainty of war-torn Europe, with effective use of suffocating camerawork and, in particular, a sweeping overhead shot of the vélodrome where the Jewish families languish, frightened and ailing after days of mistreatment and neglect. The film does not shy away from some shocking revelations, and the principal emotional punch is well-delivered, without being gratuitous or overdone.
Scott Thomas is, predictably, the heart of the modern story, but her co-stars in the telling of the war years are equally compelling. Our young heroine Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) gets by on chutzpah rather than cutesiness, and Niels Arestrup (seen recently in last year’s A Prophet and Farewell) brings his artistic weight to the role of a kindly local who ensures Sarah’s wellbeing and eventual legacy.
While audiences may feel they have had their fill of Holocaust stories, what sets this apart is its particular French spin, and the implication of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and women in the capture and death of their fellow citizens. In 1995, President Chirac acknowledged the state’s involvement in Vel D’Hiv and called for France to face up to its past, so its relevance is still very real today.
The story spans seven decades and two continents, as Julia’s increasingly obsessive quest for the truth slowly reveals its answers. The early revelations are handled well, though towards act three things get a bit clunky as she imposes on virtual strangers, lobbing questions at them over a cup of tea before racing to her next destination.
Perhaps also because of the strange casting of Aidan Quinn (who is no European, and no match for the nuanced Scott Thomas), the film starts to feel long. However, we are engaged throughout and, though the book title is clumsy, overall the film’s adaptation is suitably elegant.