The versatile and accomplished Kristin Scott Thomas works skillfully in both English and French. In Sarah’s Key she is never less than perfect doing both. It’s another in a long line of harrowing stories about the horrors of the Holocaust, but don’t let that deter you. It’s more a detective story than a depressing diary of atrocity, as it tells dual narratives set in 1942 and the present. Based on the popular novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has done an elegant job of reducing a complex piece with many components into a riveting narrative that grabs you by the lapels and refuses to loosen its grip.
Paris. July 1942. A 10-year-old Jewish girl named Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) hears disturbing noises in the street outside her family’s apartment in the Marais district. Panic spreads through the neighborhood with the inevitable sound of fists banging on doors. It’s not the dreaded Nazis who drag the Jews away and imprison them in the stadium called the Vélodrome d’Hiver, but the French police, under orders from the Vichy government, who round up their own people. Little Sarah makes a valiant attempt to save at least one member of her family by hiding her baby brother in a locked bedroom closet and taking the key, promising she’ll be back to rescue him. How could she know her family would never return? In one of the most scandalous chapters of cowardice, fear and treachery in the history of France, 13,000 Jews were herded into trucks and shipped to concentration camps. It’s the same political theme and historical setting of Joseph Losey’s great 1976 film, Mr. Klein, with Alain Delon.
Cut to 2009. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist who has lived in Paris for 20 years, is assigned to write an article about the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium and the part it played in this shameful footnote to World War II history. Moving with her French husband into a new home that has been in his family for 60 years, her sleuthing reveals it’s the same apartment that was occupied by Sarah when her family was dispossessed and deported, and she becomes obsessed with telling the story of the family that used to live there. Both stories, half a century apart, cut back and forth, and the 1942 events are not for the faint of heart. The conditions inside the stadium, with no air, water or toilets, are somber to the point of repugnance as Mr. Paquet-Brenner spares no detail: the sewage, the bodies hurled from the roof, the bodies packed like rotting sardines into trucks to the transit camps where men and women were forcibly separated and their screaming children abandoned in confusion and terror. The chapters unfold like the pages of a book you can’t put down: as Sarah risks her life to hold onto the key to the door where she hid her 4-year-old brother, a family of farmers hides her from the Germans, and she eventually works her way to Paris to find what’s inside the secret cupboard.
In the contemporary story, Julia uncovers the guilt her in-laws feel, jeopardizing her marriage in her tireless efforts to find out what happened to Sarah. The story filters through generations of people with different family names and identities as it traces a labyrinthine story from Paris to Florence to New York, where the story ends with an American (sensitively played by Aidan Quinn) who ties up the loose threads in ways that are a shock to everyone, including himself. Painful, blood-curdling and ultimately heartbreaking, Sarah’s Key occasionally moves too ponderously for its own good, but its myriad elements are coherent and easy to follow. The results will keep you on the edge of your seat. As a mystery about the consequences of a deplorable period of political crime in occupied France, and as a tale about how dredging up the past has a ripple effect on the present, Sarah’s Key is full of engaging surprise elements. From start to finish, the opaque performance by Ms. Thomas is emotionally moving as she comes to terms with the secrets of the past as they relate to her own life, proving the theory that truth often has a very high price indeed.
Running time 111 minutes
Written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Aidan Quinn