Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Frédéric Pierrot
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Running Time: 111 mins
Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah) is a French film about a journalist who becomes engrossed in the history of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of Jewish Parisians by French police in 1942, and the story of one little girl caught up in the middle of the chaos.
This is a really impressive film. Not only does it detail a fascinating part of history that’s far less known about than it should be, but it also portrays thoroughly engrossing and movingly intimate personal drama in brilliant fashion, convincingly tying it in with the history, and yet still allowing it to blossom as its own story as the film goes on.
While the central premise of Sarah’s Key focuses on the history of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, the film is split between showing those events in 1942, and the life of a journalist in 2009 looking into that history. More often than not, splitting a historical drama between its original time period and the modern day is something that kills the intense drama of the original history, yet Sarah’s Key manages to make it work in some style, and really add to the experience of the film as a whole, something that hugely impressed me.
First off, the portrayal of the roundup in 1942 is frank and fairly brutal, but it shows not only the horrors that so many suffered under the overall guise of the Holocaust, but also the fact that normal people – in this case French police officers and many French citizens – were involved in the torture. Of course, they aren’t portrayed as the orchestrators of the mass murder, and rightly so, but by showing how complicit many supposedly innocent people were in the horrors, the film introduces a fascinating note of reflection, asking you to ponder what you would do if you had seen what happened back then.
As always, this is a very delicate subject, but Sarah’s Key is a film that handles it with both dramatic elegance and brutal realism, with some of the sequences in the first act really hitting home in a way I was not expecting at the outset of the film.
However, the film isn’t just a history lesson, and while it does a brilliant job at bringing such a fascinating and sobering topic to light, it also features a lot of emotion and rich drama that spans right through the present-day setting as well.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist with a long-held interest in the events of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, and her investigation over the course of a year takes her deeper and deeper into the stories of the people that were caught up in the terror. Throughout the film, her interest in the history grows to such a point that there establishes a strong emotional connection between the woman we see in the present day, and the story of Sarah, a young Jewish girl, back in 1942.
That distant yet still convincing and strong connection is what really ties this film together so well, and is a point of praise for director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who manages to keep you thoroughly engrossed in both sides of the story while making them feel part of a greater film as a whole, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story draws towards a fascinating close in the final act.
So, not only is there some riveting and powerful history to learn when watching Sarah’s Key, but we also delve deep into the world of a woman and her own life as she becomes engrossed in that very history, as the film presents a beautifully intimate and thoroughly moving portrayal of a woman going through many personal difficulties, and yet still never hesitating to dive deeper and deeper into the stunningly powerful story of a young girl who was caught up in the round up, but continued her story long beyond the years of the Second World War.
Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance here is absolutely brilliant, with her textbook onscreen elegance and assurance working wonders with the film’s deep emotional core, while a special mention also has to go to composer Max Richter, whose score (much like many of his others) is a powerful part of the film, never intrusive in the story at hand, yet noticeable to the point that it adds a genuinely strong dramatic power to the overall experience of the film.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by Sarah’s Key. For those looking to learn more about a part of history that many more people should know, it’s a fantastic watch, but it goes deeper than that, creating devastating and moving emotion throughout in tandem with riveting drama, all beautifully strung together by brilliant directing, actnig and music, which is why I’m giving it an 8.0.