Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, his co-writer Serge Joncour and a fine cast have expertly transferred Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel about a girl caught up in the Nazi occupation of France to the screen. “Sarah’s Key” is an elegantly crafted, touching Holocaust drama spanning four generations and a wide emotional spectrum.
The narrative is structured as a kind of detective story, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an expatriate American journalist living in Paris with her husband, executive Bertrand Tezac (Frederic Pierrot) and their daughter. She’s working on a story about one of the most notorious episodes of Vichy-era collaboration with the Germans—the April, 1942 roundup of Jews who were crammed into the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium before their deportation to the death camps. In the process of unearthing material for the piece she comes to suspect that the apartment Bertrand is renovating for the family—which he inherited from his parents—was bought by his grandfather after its Jewish occupants were removed in the event.
Juxtaposed with Julia’s investigation—which takes her to Bertrand’s father (Michel Duchaussoy) and a cache of documents—is the story of Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), a ten-year old Jewish girl who’s a member of the family taken from the apartment in 1942. Before she and her parents are dragged off by the police, she locks her four-year-old brother in a hidden closet in their bedroom and, after realizing the dangerous position that’s put him in, tries desperately to get back to their home to free the boy, both during their time at the Velodrome and afterward, when she’s separated from her parents in the transit camp.
Sarah does escape from the camp, and is reluctantly taken in by an elderly rural couple, Jules and Genevieve Dufaure (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) who are well aware of the danger they face if caught by the Germans but nonetheless not only take the girl back to Paris to search for her brother, but ultimately raise her as one of their own. As Julia discovers, however, that’s hardly the end of Sarah’s story. She traces the woman’s post-war life (with Sarah now played by Charlotte Poutrel) even as she and Bertrand face reaching a decision about her own unexpected pregnancy—a different sort of life-or-death reality.
This is a tale that clearly has the potential for soap-operatic mawkishness, not least in Julia’s last-act encounter with William Rainsferd, a character played by Aidan Quinn. But Paquet-Brenner adroitly sidesteps the trap, maintaining throughout a compassionate but clear-eyed perspective, one that hardly shortchanges the emotion inherent in Sarah’s journey but doesn’t wallow in sentiment. Nor is the treatment without subtlety. Though the cruelty of the occupation isn’t downplayed, time and again kindness, however imperfect, comes through, not only in the actions of the Dufaures, but those of a policeman in the internment camp and even a collaborationist official on a Paris-bound train. And when the truth about the Tezac family is revealed, it proves rather different from what one might expect.
Under the director’s astute hand the acting is strong across the board. Scott Thomas delivers a tightly controlled but quietly expressive performance that unfailingly holds one’s interest. But it’s young Mayance who provides the picture’s heart and soul with a turn that’s remarkably sophisticated and nuanced for one so young. Frot and especially Arestrup bring poignancy as well as down-to-earth sternness to their parts, while Duchaussoy underplays nicely and Quinn carries off his small but pivotal role with deceptive ease. (He’s becoming one of our most dependable supporting players.) The smaller parts are all superbly filled.
From the technical perspective the film is first-rate. Francoise Dupertuis’ production design is impeccable in both the period and contemporary sections, Pascal Rideo’s cinematography is lush and Herve Schneid’s editing ties the chronological shifts together smoothly.
“Sarah’s Key” can certainly be praised for its canny construction and keen cinematic style, but its real strength lies in its simple, direct emotional resonance.