DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Sarah's Key

Monday 5 December 2011

Sarah's Key

Sarah’s Key (2011) dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, Aidan Quinn


By Alan Bacchus

The despicable Vel' d'Hiv event in 1942, during which thousands of French Jews were rounded up by French police before they were sent off to concentration camps, is just the starting point for the big screen adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel. The film version attempts to compress too much story, including not only the round up, but also the life journey of a child survivor and a present-day story about a journalist uncovering her personal connection to the girl’s story – all in a scant 107 minutes. As such, there’s a melodramatic feel to this powerful story, which is badly in need of a delicate touch to convey the complex internal conflict and sweeping, epic, cross-generational conflict.

Sarah Strazinsky is a 10-year-old girl subjected to the intense anti-Semitism of Nazi-Europe. In an instant her young life is plucked from her when her home is invaded and her family is rounded up. Sensing danger, she attempts a heroic act by hiding her younger brother in a bedroom closet and locking the door, promising to come back when she’s released.

Paquet-Brenner’s film does a terrific job of putting us in the child’s point of view, as the youngster desperately tries to find a way back to Paris and her home to release her brother. We can’t help but think how badly this reunion would turn out. And quietly, we as audience members are hoping a cinematic miracle will save us from the harsh realities of what would actually happen to that young boy.

Despite my reservations about the film as a whole, Paquet-Brenner gets the scene right, as Sarah uses her key (referenced in the title) to open the cupboard door weeks or months after leaving her brother there. Indeed, it's a real heartbreaker.

Where Pacquet-Brenner falters are in the events after this moment, which encompass the second half of the film. Framed by French-American journalist, Julia (Scott-Thomas), investigating the round up, Sarah’s life story and the personal connection with her husband’s family in the present, we learn about the harrowing journey of Sarah's escape from the concentration camp. Niels Arestrup delivers another strong humane performance as Sarah’s surrogate father, who takes her in and hides her from the Nazis. But as Julia makes a connection with Sarah’s new family in the present, the truth and lies become murky, revealing dark secrets that Sarah hid from her family. These secrets all stem from the trauma of her naïve decisions as a child during that traumatic event so many years ago.

There are some profound internal conflicts at the heart of Sarah’s character, as this one action affected everything she did later in life. Unfortunately, when seen only in dollops of flashbacks from scrapbooked photo albums collected and revealed later in the picture, the true gravity of a life never fulfilled is lost. Some of the key reveals in the film occur in the last 15 minutes and are handled with much haste. Paquet-Brenner resorts to a shamelessly overused scene, during which Sarah’s grandson in the present confronts his father who knows the family secrets. The clichéd ‘tattered old diary’ that has been hidden until now is brought out, a cheap and dirty melodramatic ploy that solves complex intergenerational problems much too simply.

This is the stuff three-hour plus movies are made of - and they're made by David Lean, Steven Spielberg or Anthony Minghella. Though I haven’t read the book, we can tell that the compression of events and material this dramatic can never been done justice without patience and cinematic due diligence.

Sarah’s Key is available on Blu-ray from TVA Films in Canada.

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