American journalist Julia Armand (Kristin Scott Thomas) is on the brink of making big life decisions regarding her marriage and her unborn child. What starts off as research for an article about the Vel'd'Hiv Roundup of Jews by French authorities in 1942 in France ends up as a journey towards self-discovery as she stumbles upon a terrible secret and discovers the heartbreaking story of a Jewish family forced out of their home, a home that is now her own. As she starts to see, live, and breathe through Sarah (Melsuine Mayance), the eldest daughter, her world is turned upside down.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Sarah's Key joins the long list of films documenting - with the tools of dramatisation - the seemingly endless litany of atrocities committed during WWII, almost always against Jews. Each one tells a unique story, though, and what's more remarkable than man's ability to degrade, torture, mistreat and kill his fellow man, is our balancing capacity for courage, decency and redemption.
But the road is tough, the pain profound and the price for survival very high.
Filmmaker Gilles Paquet-Brenner keeps the tension high by telling the story of the past intercut with Julia's journey of discovery in the present. Melsuine Mayance is terrific as the young Sarah, easily handling her scenes with the adults. Kristin Scott Thomas makes the most of the emotional opportunities as Julia, the bi-lingual American journalist whose professional and private lives merge when she and her husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot) take an apartment in Paris where once the Jewish family Starzynski lived - until rounded up in July 1942.
Julia learns about their fate, and is troubled by the thought of living in their home; she starts digging into the past to find the skeletons that haunt the present. Her quest soon focuses on Sarah, who was 8 at the time. As we follow her journey of discovery, we also discover what happened to the Starzinskys.
The emotional core of the story is driven by the events of a single moment, when bright little Sarah hopes to save her little brother from being taken away with them by hiding him in a secret cupboard and making him promise to stay. Her well meaning act breeds tragic consequences which haunt Sarah all her life
The melancholy story, adapted from the best seller by Tatiana de Rosnay, engages us from the start, and although it is necessarily curtailed for the screen, it is crisply written and sensitively directed. We are drawn into the vile circumstances of the war and the painful way society was torn apart; it's not new or fresh, we have seen it on film many times, yet it never fails to ignite the fires of revulsion.
As Julia's journey meanders maddeningly, frustratingly (for her) towards its conclusion, relationships are broken and new ones forged, and (unless you have read the book) it's hard to predict what is round each corner. The film succeeds in exploring a despicable event in French wartime history through the personal dramas of the key characters.
Review by Louise Keller:
The price of truth is the central theme of this deeply moving film whose narrative about a little Jewish girl in wartime Paris resonates through time and across oceans. The story, based on Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel, is set in two timeframes and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner uses the jumps in time to add momentum and tension. The story set in 1942 about the little girl called Sarah who has a key with an unspeakable secret is linked to the present day to Kristen Scott Thomas’ Paris-based journalist, through the apartment in which she and her French husband are about to move into. This is a war story and a story of survival against the odds, but it is also a detective story and the revelations that arise when truth is sought out.
The film begins in 1942 with two young children tickling each other happily in their bedroom. The cat curls up peacefully on the chair. But this joyful innocence is shortlived as the parents are taken to a camp with their daughter, while their small son remains hidden in a cupboard. The fact that the French, as well as Germans in Nazi Germany were responsible for incarcerating Jews is a fact that not everyone may be aware. These early establishment scenes are crucial to what happens next and our involvement in the whole tale.
Scott Thomas is perfectly cast as Julia, the American journalist passionate about the project she is researching and who unexpectedly finds herself connected to Sarah and her story. As Julia becomes more vulnerable and the gulf between her and husband widens, the relevance and importance of Sarah’s story increases. The film flits from the present to the past and back again, until secrets are revealed and answers found. All the performances are wonderful and Aiden Quinn makes an impression in a key role. Prepare yourself to have your heart shaken and stirred; this is a beautiful film that takes us on an unforgettable emotional journey.
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SARAH'S KEY (M)
Elle s'appelait Sarah
CAST: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melsuine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Aidan Quinn
PRODUCER: Stephane Marsil
DIRECTOR: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
SCRIPT: Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Serge Joncour (novel by Tatiana De Rosnay)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Pascal Ridao
EDITOR: Herve Schneid
MUSIC: Max Richter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Francoise Dupertuis
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 23, 2010