Two parallel stories from different eras intertwine and inform each other in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film, which is based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel. The structure is a delicate balancing act, since one story is set amid the atrocities of the Holocaust and the other concerns a journalist in modern-day Paris confronting family and professional problems. Both stories are accorded similar narrative weight, which is occasionally a problem since the dissolution of a marriage due to differing opinions about an unplanned pregnancy is hardly the same thing as a marriage that dies as a result of the Final Solution.
Nevertheless, Sarah’s Key manages to bridge the gap, in no small part due to the intelligent, subtle and fully believable performances by Kristin Scott Thomas as the journalist, Julia, and Mélusine Mayance as young Sarah.
"Sometimes our own stories are the ones we can never tell,” intones a woman’s voice over the opening credits. As the movie begins, we find Julia, a transplanted American in France, who is working on a little-known story about the French collusion with the Nazis. On July 16, 1942, the police came in the night and rounded up Paris’ Jews and held them for several days in the Vel’ d’Hiv bicycle arena without food or bathrooms (the images are reminiscent of New Orleans’ Superdome during Hurricane Katrina) before shipping them off to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
Before the police knocked on her family’s door, Sarah Starzynski locked her little brother in a closet to keep him safe, never suspecting that the family wouldn’t return. Her journey through the ravages of the Holocaust is a gut-wrenching drama, especially in comparison with Julia’s contemporary crisis. An accident of real estate hints at the Starzynski family’s predicament, and Julia becomes determined to solve the mystery. Her quest puts her own family’s stability in jeopardy and also allows the journalist to school her younger colleagues on the history of France’s collaboration with the Nazis. Her desire to learn the truth impinges on the lives of several others, and the film becomes a potent study of how the past and the present are never truly isolated.
Although Sarah’s Key sometimes seems as though it’s about to create a moral equivalency between the two tales, it never crosses that delicate line. Both Sarah and Julia emerge as distinct characters whose experiences are hardly comparable but whose perseverance in the face of daunting odds is most honorable. Grade: B
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