The terrible but little known (by me, at least) rounding up and deporting of thousands of Jewish citizens of Paris by the French authorities in 1942 is the basis for Sarah’s Key, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and starring Kristin Scott Thomas as an American journalist who is drawn into resolving the mystery of the fate of one particular household when she uncovers links from this atrocity to her French husband’s family. The film cuts between wartime events and the present day framing story and is for the most part involving and often very affecting, though it must be said that there are certain plot contrivances and passages of exposition-heavy dialogue that caused me to wince a little.
The most successful sections are those that follow the Starzynski family as they are forcibly removed from their apartment and held first in an overcrowded and unsanitary stadium in the city and later in a concentration camp. These scenes are brilliantly realised and genuinely harrowing, with the weight of the story being carried mainly by Mélusine Mayance as the young daughter Sarah, whose desperation is heightened by her realisation that she may have made a terrible error in regard to the safety of her younger brother. Mayance’s performance is amazingly powerful, and she helps lift the film above melodrama into something gripping and occasionally very moving.
Unfortunately the modern day scenes that run parallel are nowhere near as effective, despite Scott Thomas’s best efforts and some nice location work in Paris and elsewhere. There just seem to be a couple of coincidences too many in the investigation, and the attempt to give the journalist a personal stake in the Starzynski’s story doesn’t really ring true. This story also doesn’t seem to benefit from the sub-plots to do with complications in her domestic set-up that have been grafted on – it’s interesting enough in its own right and setting up mirroring and/or complementary situations in the present day just isn’t necessary. Still, it chugs along fairly pleasantly and there are only a handful of moments that have you mentally screaming for the editor to come back from lunch. All in all, definitely worth watching if you’re at all interested in the subject matter.