out of Five
Running time: 111
Impressively directed and sharply edited, this is an emotionally engaging and occasionally harrowing French drama with terrific performances from Melusine Mayance and Kristin Scott Thomas, but the structure of the story means that its dramatic impact is lessened in the second half.
What's it all about?
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Sarah's Key is based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay and stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who lives in Paris with her husband Bertrand (Frederic Pierrot) and their sulky teenage daughter Zoe (Karina Hin). While researching a story on the 1942 Velodrome d'Hiver round-up (in which the French police rounded up 13,000 Jews and kept them in the Vel D'Hiv before deporting them), Julia uncovers a harrowing story involving the family that used to live in her husband's family flat in the Marais district.
Julia's investigation is intercut with the events as they unfold in 1942, when young Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) locks her younger brother in a cupboard to protect him from the police during the round-up, only for her family to be taken away before she can rescue him. Sarah manages to escape deportation and is taken in by a kindly couple (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot) who she eventually persuades to take her to Paris, in the desperate hope that her brother is still alive.
Kristin Scott Thomas is superb as Julia and her search for the truth is compelling and engaging, even as it takes its toll on her own family relationships. She's ably supported by a terrific performance from young Melusine Mayance, who's utterly heartbreaking as young Sarah and whose single-minded desire to get back to Paris parallels Julia's almost monomaniacal obsession with Sarah's story.
Herve Schneid's editing is extremely impressive, allowing both stories to flow naturally without either story screeching to an abrupt halt. Similarly, Paquet-Brenner orchestrates some extremely powerful scenes, particularly in the wartime round-up sections of the film.
The main problem with the film is that the structure of the story means that its most emotional sequence occurs in the middle of the film and nothing that happens afterwards is quite as compelling. This isn't helped by a frustrating loss of focus on Sarah's character (played as an adult by Charlotte Poutrel), or by a slightly dodgy performance from Aidan Quinn as Sarah's adult son towards the end of the film.
Sarah’s Key is an engaging drama with terrific performances from Scott Thomas and Mayance, but the structure of the story means that its emotional impact isn't as powerful as it could have been.