Kristin Scott Thomas has, in a very quietly impressive fashion, somehow made herself the First Lady of Anglo-French relations. With her mix of acting talent, style, poise, intelligence and beauty she has enjoyed success in both countries in roles that have seen her epitomise, in varying ways, the perceived defining characteristics of both nationalities. The lady is, indeed, every bit a lady and also excels in the right role. Sarah’s Key gives her such a role, surrounding the distinguished actress with a quality story that mixes terrible historic events with a present day still very much affected by such things, even if it’s not always obvious from the outset.
Our leading lady plays journalist Julia Jarmond, a woman who begins to get slightly obsessive over her latest assignment. In 1942 Paris, French officials rounded up over 10,000 Jewish people and most of them were sent off to German concentration camps after being held in squalid conditions for days. The story of one little girl in particular, Sarah Starzynski (played, for the majority of the film, by Melusine Mayance), lodges in Julia’s mind and becomes something that she must unravel from beginning to end. When the officials came round to gather up the whole family, Sarah managed to hide her younger brother in a secret cupboard and locks him in while telling him not to come out. She keeps hold of the key needed to free her brother while desperately trying to figure out just how she will get home again.
Where this movie excels is the way in which it treats the painful discoveries and central journeys (the lives of Julia and Sarah become more and more entwived as the plot develops) with care and gravitas without ever feeling overly emotional and manipulative, for the most part. Sadly, the very last scenes are a bit of a mis-step but those can be forgiven when you consider just what you’ve watched for the preceding runtime.
Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic in her role, as poised and well-mannered as ever despite the emotions that begin to bubble up from deep below the surface, while Melusine Mayance is simply wonderful as the young Sarah, a child thrown in the midst of a very adult world full of danger. The rest of the cast, overall, do well but this movie stays at its best when we’re in the company of the two leading ladies. Aidan Quinn doesn’t fare so well, however, mainly because his appearance seems so jarring in a movie not exactly overflowing with well-known faces but also because his character leads viewers towards that disappointingly maudlin finale.
The script does well, giving the audience enough information to supply context and atmosphere while not grinding to a halt at any point. It’s also good to see that as Julia becomes consumed by the article she is working on she acknowledges that she is prying into the lives of others and that she is being very selfish and inconsiderate.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (who co-wrote the script based on the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay) doesn’t do anything too flashy or stylish with the material and is happy to let the impact come from the main plot points. Perhaps some flourishes here and there could have elevated the movie even further but it must be said that he does well enough, especially when moving between the past and the present and showing the connections, to deserve some praise. If only we didn’t have to endure those flawed final moments.
Sarah’s Key is released on DVD on 28th November and comes on a disc that also features a behind the scenes feature that runs for about an hour. While there’s nothing else of note on the disc, besides the trailer, those who enjoyed the movie and everyone involved will certainly enjoy this look at the process required to get just the right performances onscreen.
DIRECTOR: GILLES PAQUET-BRENNER
WRITER: GILLES PAQUET-BRENNER, SERGE JONCOUR (BASED ON THE NOVEL BY TATIANA DE ROSNAY)
STARS: KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, MELUSINE MAYANCE, NIELS ARESTRUP, FREDERIC PIERROT, AIDAN QUINN
RUNTIME: 111 MINS APPROX