November 28, 2011
Review - " Sarah's Key " - (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels
Arestrup, Michel Duchaussoy, Aiden Quinn
Unflinching yet poignant, Sarah's Key asks just how deeply you
want to delve into your past.
Transcending two different eras – World War II France and its
modern day counterpart – along with a host of global locations,
Sarah’s Key is a gripping tale of one little girl and the desire of
a journalist to connect her to her present-day bloodline. This
movie is not at all like a documentary, although it does center
on the Vel d'Hiv roundup in Paris during World War II. This
particular incident in French history isn’t well known and is
generally not in a large number of historical texts on the
Holocaust. As a result this film and the fictitious book on which
it is based tell an important story that all should hear.
Sarah’s Key details one of the blackest periods in French
history when the government rounded up thousands of of Jews
living in the country to be sent to Nazi concentration camps.
The story of Sara Starzynski is fiction against this quite real
historical backdrop, but that does not detract from the
emotional power it evokes. Ordered by the Nazis to reduce the
Jewish population in occupied France in 1942, the French
authorities went on a mass arrest; imprisoning thousands of
French Jews in a Parisian velodrome under inhuman
conditions. In Tatiana de Rosney’s fictional tale Sarah’s Key a
10-year-old girl named Sarah attempts to save her younger brother Michel before she is taken away; locking him in the
closet and making him promise not to leave until she returns. When the prisoners are moved to concentration camps and
split up, Sarah realises she must escape if she is to be in with a chance of freeing Michel.
Meanwhile in the present, an American journalist named Julia Jarmond (the ever-glorious Kristin Scott-Thomas) is
beginning to research a piece surrounding the inhuman events of 1940s Paris. When she and her husband inherit a small
flat in the city itself, she soon finds herself woven into young Sarah’s story, unable and unwilling to free herself from it for
reasons she can’t decipher.
Sarah’s Key could easily be yet another WW2
movie yet it manages to feel relevant and fresh.
For a start, the Nazis are not the explicit enemy,
and even though it is the French authorities that
round up the Jews, even they are not the focus.
The spotlight, rather, is on history; the past
ebbing into the present, and how it is that those
we have never known can change who we are.
That being said, there are several moments that
send shivers through your body, akin to looking
at the piles of shoes gathered from Auschwitz
victims or the miles of white headstones that
mark the WWI battlefields. The unimaginable
scale of the Vel’D’Hiv brought vividly to the
screen, but first and foremost Sarah’s Key
serves the needs of its story rather than of its
emotive context – and is all the better for it.
Scott Thomas is in her element as Julia, and
carries the present-day section of the movie
strongly. She is let down by those let’s-get-the-history-straight moments in her editor’s office and those token we’re-young-
and-ignorant characters that supposedly exist in order to conveniently fill in a historically-clueless audience. Ok, those
scenes may be necessary (I’d never heard the details of the Vel’ d’Hiv) but sadly the script is never quite strong enough to
do away with the faint air of pragmatism.
The acting in Sarah’s Key is top notch, which should come as no surprise . Not only is Scott Thomas especially strong,
shifting beautifully between English and French, but Frederic Pierrot’s turn as Julia’s husband is wonderful, as a man who
can no longer control his future. As for the young French actress, Mélusine Mayance, her performance as the determined
and intelligent Sarah is beautiful and believable. Mayance portrays the agony of being separated from one’s family so
convincingly, that she must be the envy of actors twice her age. She must quickly learn about the nature of her
surroundings in order to make her ruthless return journey to Paris. As she grows into an adult, haunted by her past, that
heightened misery never leaves her character – and this air is something that connects her to the equally determined
twenty-first century Julia. Finally, a mention must be given to Niels Arestrup, who despite the minor role he has in the film, is
an absolute on-screen force as Jules Dufaure, who along with his wife raise the young Sarah after her escape from the
The real-life event is depicted here like a documentary. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does nothing to sensationalize the
roundup, which occurred just before citizens were herded to camps. Unsanitary and overcrowded, the Velodrome reeks of
death, current and coming.
Paquet-Brenner keeps events from getting too maudlin by focusing much of his film on Sarah, who is still too young to know
the nightmare to which she has awakened. One scene, in which Sarah and another girl escape the camp by skipping
through a field of wheat, is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
In a way that is necessary for films that deal with tragedy, Gilles Paquet-Brenner is unafraid of bringing the brutality of the
events of the Holocaust to the forefront. It risks cliché but with sensitive acting and an absorbing storyline that weaves the
past and the present so
successfully, Sarah’s Key is
far more than just a history
This film avoids excessive
sentimentality, which is no
mean feat given the subject
matter. Sarah's Key
exceeded my expectations.
It was an absorbing, rich
and detailed film, which
expertly and seamlessly
combined the two stories of
its lead protagonists, Sarah