I haven’t read the book “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay but after seeing the trailer I was interested in the film because of the story and because it stars one of my favorite actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas.
“Sarah’s Key” is the story of two women, two different time periods, their families, and how their lives intersect. British actress Scott Thomas plays an American journalist, Julia Jarmond, living in Paris today and researching an article about a terrible event that happened during World War II in German occupied France. On the 16 and 17 of July 1942 French police, under Nazi orders, arrested a large number of the Jewish population of Paris and sent them to concentration camps. The real historical event, the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, serves as the backdrop of the fictional story of ten year old Sarah Starzynski, played by Melusine Mayance, who is arrested with her parents in their apartment in the Marais district of Paris.
Sarah and her family have a secret about her brother, and it’s the key that the little girl keeps as she’s forcibly separated from her parents and sent to a separate camp, that holds the answer to the secret.
As Julia researches what happened to Sarah and her family after Vel d’Hiv, the little girl’s story becomes part of the story of Julia’s own family, her husband’s family. Her husband’s grandparents once lived in the apartment occupied by Sarah and her parents. In Julia’s search for the truth she wanders what did her husband’s family really know, and how complicit were they in what happened to the Starzynski’s. Through it all Julia is also locked in her own personal drama with her husband and the state of their marriage.
Through flashbacks we see the story of ten year old Sarah and her struggle to survive the camp, and escape and return to Paris. Melusine Mayance is very believable as Sarah and we feel her desperation and sadness, and admire her bravery. Along the way, amid all the horrors of the time, she finds good people who help. Watching Sarah’s story unfold, the film leads us to wonder what we would do under the same circumstances. Would we risk our own lives to help a fellow human being we don’t know?
For Julia the question is what are the consequences of digging up the past? Is she selfish in her pursuit of the story?
The film is less successful for me in the story of the teenage and adult Sarah. The feisty, brave, smart, resourceful child is turned into a silent Vogue model on a break from Fashion Week in Paris. I don’t know if the book does a better job with Sarah as she grows up, but what happens to her as an adult is a series of beautiful looking but empty scenes. As a result, when Julia puts the pieces together and we finally get to know the truth, it is not as emotionally striking as the story of Sarah as a child.
Beautifully acted and emotionally powerful until the last third of the film, it loses power once we know the rest of the story. The film settles all at the end a bit too neatly for a French film. But I definitely recommend the film, especially because of the performances of Kristin Scott Thomas and Melusine Mayance.
The film is interestingly in both French and English, directed by Gilles Pacquet-Brenner.