Sarah’s Key is actually two movies, one set in World War II and the other in the present.
The first is a devastating look at the horrors of the Holocaust as witnessed by a child.
The latter is not-terribly-compelling detective story.
In the end they dovetail to make a more-or-less complete whole.
Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American-born writer for a Paris magazine, is researching a story on one of the darkest blots on French history — the July 1942 roundup of 13,000 Jews, not by the occupying Germans but by the French police.
The prisoners were herded into a covered sports stadium without food, water or sanitation facilities. Those who survived several days in this hellhole (one character compares it to the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, only 10 times worse) were then shipped off to labor or death camps.
Julia’s connection to this story has a personal component. She and her French husband are renovating the apartment his family has lived in since July 1942. Julia has reason to believe the former occupants were a Jewish family swept up in the madness.
Julia’s obsession with this particular bit of history puts a strain on her relations both at home and at work. But there’s more: She finds herself pregnant more than a decade after being told she could no longer conceive. Her husband (Frédéric Pierrot) wants her to have an abortion; plus he may be having an affair.
So things are pretty miserable in her life.
Unfortunately, none of this is terribly compelling. Scott Thomas is a terrific actress, but in whittling down Tatiana De Rosnay’s best-selling novel to a manageable screenplay writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has had to jettison many of the small scenes that made the book a compelling read. As a result Julia’s story seems packed with momentous events and coincidences. It all feels vaguely histrionic.
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Faring much better are the flashbacks to the war years, where histrionics were part of everyday life.
Here we have a child actress — Mélusine Mayance — giving a phenomenal performance as the titular Sarah, who with her parents is dragged off by the police.
But before vacating their apartment Sarah locks her little brother in a hidden closet, making him promise to wait and remain quiet until she comes to retrieve him.
In order for little Sarah to do that she must find a way to escape an internment camp, travel halfway across France without food or money (all while being sought by the authorities), and make her way to Paris, where her little brother may or may not still be in his prison waiting for her to arrive with the key that will at last open his door.
That’s a lot of grief and activity for one child to endure, but Mayance (10 at the time the movie was shot) is absolutely breathtaking in this role, moving from fear and panic to grim determination. Plus she is such an exquisitely beautiful child that the cruelties she endures seem that much more brutal.
There are some fine supporting performances here, especially Niels Arestrup (War Horse) and Dominique Frot as a farm couple who rescue the little fugitive, Charlotte Poutrel as the adult Sarah and, in the present, Aidan Quinn as Sarah’s only child.
Ultimately this is an adequate — frequently much more than adequate — screen adaptation of a hugely popular book.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.