2.5 Stars out of 4
Sarah’s Key is a film that gets everything right but the story. It is based on the critically-acclaimed novel “Her Name was Sarah” by Tatiana de Rosnay, and I suspect – since I haven’t read the book – something got lost in translation. The flaw could be in the title. Since this is called “Sarah’s Key” and not “Her Name was Sarah” implies that this is directly about Sarah, and not the memory of her. Nevertheless, the film is more about the modern-day subplot and this, I’m afraid, doesn’t do the justice of its fascinating other half.
It stars the charming, very talented Kristen Scott Thomas in a bilingual role (like in Tell No One and I’ve Loved You So Long) as journalist Julia Jarmond, who inherits the apartment of her French husband’s (Frédéric Pierrot) grandparents. We soon discover that the place was originally owned by Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her family, who were rounded up along with approximately 13 000 other Jews at the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris on July 16, 1942.
That tale is enough for a three-hour epic, but director Gilles Paquet-Brenner uses the book’s technique by alternating from horrible past to a more blissful present, where the effect is to juxtapose the two and discover new found meaning. Yes, there is meaning here. The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup is a particularly uncharted event during the Holocaust, and it is particularly interesting because it reveals wounds and evils of the French, instead of the standard Nazi business.
If only Sarah’s Key followed this narrative trajectory, I could sense brilliance. But this subplot – the agent of memory – becomes less and less the focus as the film progresses, so we find ourselves stranded in a humdrum drama. By the end, the memory is a blur and the conclusion renders only a haze of emotion.
That being said, the ingredients here are strong. For one, Kristen Scott Thomas is excellent as the plucky journalist who is determined to uncover Sarah’s uncertain past. We sense both intelligence and heart put into her journey, which brings Scott Thomas’s protagonist above the loftiness of the conventional material. Well, only conventions spoil her tale but Sarah’s is extraordinary. It reveals something about the French during wartime that is so rarely shown. The result is tragedy. Can you believe they sent Jews to the clutches of the Nazis before the Nazis had even issued the order? What were they in a rush for?
Sarah’s journey is far more urgent than Julia’s, and for obvious reasons. In the blink of an eye, she and her parents were rounded-up and sent to transitory camps, while Sarah’s brother hid in a locked closet. Sarah has the key and it is her mission to return to that apartment and save her brother. That objective ends how we wouldn’t expect, or – during that time – I suppose would. Regardless, Paquet-Brenner handles that scene delicately by not showing us what we have already painted sorrowfully in our mind.
The rest of Sarah’s incredible feat of survival involves her traveling – parentless – across France. When she bumps into actor Niels Arestrup (the delusional kingpin in A Prophet), you know he isn’t there just for scenery. Sure enough, his character saves Sarah from persecution, and she eventually flees to the United States where remorse follows her everywhere.
Sarah’s Key reminded me of Sophie’s Choice and, more recently, the great Canadian film Incendies. Both involve looking at the past through an ambiguous filter in how we try to make sense of what happened, but ultimately end with accepting that it will never be explained. But Incendies knew that the story of the past was the key to propelling the drama incurred in the present. Sarah’s Key fails to do that. The subplots, one strong the other not, run incongruently so that whenever Julia’s journey reappears we demand a retreat to the better, more hard-hitting territory.
When Aidan Quinn arrives at the climax as an important character, I saw him not as that character but as Aidan Quinn. He’s too well-known and a fresher, more understated face would have been better. More importantly, Sarah’s Key never manifests the real mystery of the present day: Sarah. This is called “Sarah’s Key” but it doesn’t feel like her story. She becomes a figment, a piece of the memory not the heart of it.
Nevertheless, Sarah’s Key will move those willing to be moved. Or at least the easy ones. Those who loved the book might pick up on things that I have not. There is a power in that the film understands that as much as we wish to remember and strive to unlock the past with the keys of our conscience, the rest is – and always will be – history.