The lingering impression Sarah’s Key leaves is one of bitter disappointment.
Harrowing and hackneyed, Sarah’s Key is an infuriatingly inconsistent film whose traumatic World War II subject matter is ill-served by its clumsy approach. Though it’s sporadically elevated by scenes of staggering emotional potency and even moments of visual poetry, and while some sequences require a ready tissue, moments later you’ll be gawping at its gaffes.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living and working in Paris and married to a Parisian. Julia is researching the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup: the arrest and extradition of over 13,000 Jewish families in 1942, ordered by the Nazis, enacted by the French authorities. During the course of her investigations she uncovers uncomfortable truths about the actions and inactions of wartime Parisians, including her husband’s family, and ultimately finds her relationship in jeopardy.
It turns out that Julia’s apartment, which has been in their family for years, was originally the home of a Jewish family taken in the Roundup. The film simultaneously becomes the story of the 10-year-old Sarah (confidently played by Mélusine Mayance), arrested with her father and mother and desperate to return to her young brother, whom she has, with the best intentions, locked in their secret hiding place.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner ensures that each thread has its own distinctive aesthetic. During the sequences set during 1942 the camerawork is urgent, intimate and confrontational, effectively conveying the desperation, chaos and dehumanising barbarism, and it’s hard not to get swept up by the emotion and injustice of it all.
By contrast the scenes taking place in the present day are filmed at a steely remove; they feel cold and judgemental. In fact there’s something altogether disconcerting about the structure (and the original concept of Tatiana de Rosnay’ssource novel) – the way the American Julia confronts her French in-laws and, by extension, the French as a nation.
It’s tremendously patronising and unforgivably clunky, with the sequences set in the English-speaking office pure and transparent exposition. Here it feels as if history is being spoon-fed to us by those at a cultural remove, whereas, based on the relative success of the flashback sequences, could we not simply have witnessed the horror for ourselves?
Sarah’s Key reaches an emotional crescendo two thirds in and its final scenes are bafflingly concerned with unfamiliar characters, who simply aren’t given the screen time for us to have developed an emotional attachment. Scott Thomas is a reassuringly credible presence throughout but she can’t do enough to detract from the film’s fundamental flaws.
Powerful in places but exceptionally poor in others, the lingering impression Sarah’s Key leaves is one of bitter disappointment. It ends, too, on a particularly damning note – with a final revelation so craply predictable you’ll have to bite your tongue not to chime along in time with it.
Based on a best-selling novel, stirring subject matter, Scott Thomas is the safest pair of hands imaginable.
Occasionally moving but more often appalling.