By Carolyn Williams
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s movie adaptation of “Sarah’s Key” is, unfortunately, average at best. Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s international bestseller (the original French title translates to “She Was Called Sarah”), the film interpretation struggles, as does the book, to balance between its dual narratives. In its attempt to compromise between the two, it ends up falling flat.
The beginning of the film primarily focuses on Sarah Starzynski, (Mélusine Mayance), a 10-year-old Jew living in the Paris of Vichy France, 1942. Sarah’s family is taken in the night, not by the Germans but by French police officers, to be part of the infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver Roundup, in which thousands of Parisian Jews were kept in inhumane conditions at the Vél d’Hiv, an indoor stadium within the city. Sarah, in a moment of impulsivity, locks her little brother Michel in the closet, promising to return soon, taking the key with her. She expects to be home in time to let him out before nightfall. But as she and her family are kept captive day after day, Sarah begins to realize the full weight of her well-intentioned actions, and becomes desperate to escape Beaune-la-Rolande, the transit camp where she and her family are waiting to be shipped off to Auschwitz, hell-bent on keeping her promise to protect her brother.
Meanwhile, in modern day Paris, American journalist Julia Jarmond, (Kristin Scott Thomas, “The English Patient”), is writing an article to commemorate the events of the Vél d’Hiv roundup. In a turn of events which is a little too convenient for the audience member of average intelligence, it is revealed that the apartment belonging to Julia’s family was acquired shortly after the mass deportation in 1942, and the former owners were none other than the Starzynskis themselves. Julia becomes obsessed with learning the truth behind what happened to the apartment’s former tenants, and when she learns that Sarah, managed to survive the Holocaust, she turns her investigative journalism to the task of putting the pieces of this family drama together.
The real problem here is not the actors’ fault, because both Scott Thomas and the very poised Mayance give strong performances. The script is badly written, and the overall effect of the juxtaposition of modern day with historic scenes is jolting and ultimately unsatisfying. The scenes of Sarah’s story are very convincingly articulated, particularly the depiction of the separation of children from their mothers at Beaune-la-Rolande, but in comparison, Jarmond’s determined search into the past is weak and stilted. Julia’s marital troubles and recent pregnancy are tiny problems compared to the horror story of Sarah’s experience. Her survivor’s guilt is poignant, and the movie’s greatest failing is not telling more of Sarah’s life. Instead, they inexplicably focus on the soapbox from which Julia preaches the wrongs committed by the French people during the German Occupation, and we are forced to listen when, if allowed, we could see that Sarah’s story speaks much louder, and with significantly more grace, than Jarmond’s self-righteous diatribes.