Sarah’s Key would like to reassure you that there is still a place in this world—or at least in its movie theaters—for a grave Holocaust drama of child endangerment.
At first, it may seem seem unfairly anesthetizing to stage this kind of drama in flashbacks and in French. But that double layer of distance actually has a lot to do with why this film is so grave. That, and the central presence of Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays a modern-day Paris journalist excavating her family’s unsettling connection to a World War II atrocity, in which the French collected nearly 13,000 thousand Jews in the Vel’ D’Hiv Roundup of 1942, and sent them to Auschwitz for extermination.
The source of director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s solemn, sentimental film is Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel, itself derived from the so-called Roundup, another of those true and tragic but lesser known historical episodes that tend not to get fully processed until somebody can make a buck off of them.
In Sarah’s Key, Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a journalist trying to retrace the steps of a young Jewish girl in German-occupied France.
Filmgoers inclined to wag their fingers at the likes of Inglourious Basterds might want to consider amending that indictment to include Sarah’s Key: Surely a surplus of excessively tasteful movies about Nazis must at least partly explain the appetite for Quentin Tarantino’s excessively distasteful one.
Yes, Sarah is the endangered child, although not the only one, and the eponymous key goes to the secret closet into which she stuffs her little brother for his own safety before getting taken away with her parents to what we know from all those other films will be either doom, or triumph of the spirit.
Although Scott Thomas supplies the understated bilingual dignity we expect from her and from a proper Euro prestige picture, Paquet-Brenner’s script, co-written with Serge Joncour, labors overmuch to set up its poignant payoffs. There’s a good instinct here for how people’s lives pile up messily atop the devastation of grievous historical circumstances. But the result is spread thin with redundant suffering, stiffly superfluous explanation and short-changed supporting characters.
Co-stars include Mélusine Mayance as Sarah, first a hapless child, then affectedly heroic; and Aidan Quinn, who arrives late and makes much of what little he’s given, as one present-day emotional stakeholder. He has a scene with Scott Thomas that’s a real knockout, but there’s something inherently unsatisfying about a catharsis that results mostly from just wanting to get it over with already.
This is a solid three-star affair about the oft-forgotten fact that the French police and bureaucracy were complicit in the Holocaust. But Sarah’s Key is a forgettable film—and not the first, at that. There’s also 2010’s The Round-Up, with Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent. Didn’t see that one coming? Well, that’s the problem: Even when dealing with great tragedy, these films just seem to come and go.