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HomeBlogPopcorn Parent Movie ReviewsMovie Review: Sarah's Key (PG-13)

Movie Review: Sarah’s Key (PG-13)

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Length: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Age Appropriate for: 15+. It is about the Holocaust, so beware of the disturbing thematic material there: countless people, including children, die. There’s also violence, terrible living conditions (involving buckets of human waste), suicide, countless corpses and a discussion about abortion.

Sarah’s Key’ will make you think and will make you cry. But a seriously strong performance from young actress Mélusine Mayance can’t balance out other uneven character development.

By Roxana Hadadi

Movies about the Holocaust are always — and rightfully so — incredibly depressing. Even Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent, fantastical take on World War II, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” had its tear-jerking moments; that opening scene with Christoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa ever-so-politely threatening the French dairy farmer into revealing the Jewish family hidden underneath his floorboards was sobering in its horror.

And similarly terrifying and saddening is “Sarah’s Key,” the big screen adaptation of the 2007 novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. Set during WWII, the novel and film both are focused on the terrible things that befell Jews in Europe, but this time the bad guys aren’t just Nazis — they’re also French police who participated in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police acting on Nazi orders gathered about 10,000 Jewish citizens in Paris, held them for days in disgusting conditions in the Vélodrome d’Hiver bicycling racetrack and stadium, moved them to an internment camp and then eventually sent them to die at Auschwitz. The film says 74 trains were sent to the death camp and 76,000 Jews in all were deported, but most of its characters don’t really know about the event — even though former French President Jacques Chirac publicly apologized in 1995 for the country’s role in the incident.

What good are apologies decades after such devastation, though? That’s the question de Rosnay, director and screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner and fellow screenwriter Serge Joncour try to answer through their main character Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas). A New York City native working as a journalist and living in Paris with her family, French husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), an architect, and near-teen daughter Zoe (Karina Hin), Julia begins to work on a story about the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, interviewing Paris residents who lived near the racetrack during the event and trying to figure out what happened to all the people who disappeared. Soon she begins to zero in on the story of one affected family, the Starzynskis, who had two children: Daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), about 8 or 9, and younger son Michel (Paul Mercier), about 5 or 6.

To tell exactly what happens to Sarah, Michel and their parents, and how their tale intersects both with Julia’s life and her relationship with her husband and his family, would be giving away too much. The film’s main climax and emotional core rests solely on the connections between these people, the cyclical nature of secrets and untruths, and how events that happened decades ago can still impact strangers in the future. In many ways, the scenes of Sarah’s life, as her happy childhood drastically tumbles into something soaked with pain, terror and fear, are more distressing because of what we don’t see: What happens to her parents, how she grows from child to teenager, the first time she falls in love. Events that would be integral to any other character’s life take a backseat here because growing up during WWII, having your entire existence torn apart by a group of French police carrying out soul-destroying orders during the Holocaust, will always overshadow anything else that comes afterward. It’s a hard truth, a heartbreaking one to recognize and realize while watching the film.

And yet the film suffers in some ways because it leaves out so much of Sarah’s life while focusing on some poorly developed parts of Julia’s. I haven’t read de Rosnay’s novel, so I can’t particularly speak to whether some of these themes are better developed in the book than in this adaptation, but it’s hard to believe Julia’s relationship with her husband would become so frail just because of a few weeks of research into the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, or that Julia would ignore her relationship with her daughter Zoe to chase down what happened to the Starzynskis. Her storyline becomes more (sadly) realistic toward its second half, when Julia begins to finally unravel the legacy of Sarah’s life and starts interacting with those she left behind, but it continues suffering from her patchy development. Does Julia come from a Jewish family, making this topic so close to her heart? Does she assume Bertrand is having an affair? Did his family disagree with their marriage from the beginning? They’re not integral elements to Julia’s believability — Scott Thomas still wonderfully captures the maelstrom of emotions involved in her journey, and her subtlety hints at the story assignment’s deep toll on her — but they would help build out the protagonist in a fuller way.

As good as Scott Thomas is, though, this film belongs to Mayance: The young actress, who before this worked primarily in French television, is exquisite as the determined, grief-rattled Sarah. Whether she’s innocently asking her more-aware parents about their future or later on, when she is more knowledgeable, talking to a French policeman about the fragility of his kindness, Mayance will crush your heart. It’s a disappointment the rest of the plot and execution of “Sarah’s Key” can’t fully live up to her performance.

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