Unlocking the door to a lesser-known piece of French history, “Sarah’s Key” is a moving – if not devastating – motion picture.
However, every time writer/director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s powerful project approaches greatness through young actress Mélusine Mayance’s incomparable talent, novelist Tatiana De Rosnay’s story rips us away from the past and places us smack-dab in a present alongside a woman with a seemingly selfish obsession, thereby distancing us from any authentic emotions.
In “Sarah’s Key,” Mayance plays Sarah Starzyski, a 10-year-old girl living in Paris in 1942. One July day, Sarah is taken with her parents by the French police as they go door-to-door arresting Jewish families in the middle of the night. Desperate to protect her younger brother, Sarah locks him in a bedroom cupboard – their secret hiding place.
However, after having promised her brother that she would come back for him as soon as they are released, Sarah and her parents are transported to the Vel’ d’Hiv before being torn apart from one another at the Beaune-la-Rolande camp. And when her mother and father are deported to the death camp in Auschwitz, Sarah is her brother’s only chance.
Sixty seven years later, Sarah’s story intertwines with that of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist investigating the roundup. In her research, Julia stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah. Questioning her own romantic future, Julia attempts to track down Sarah to uncover the ending to her tragic story.
Rather than presenting “Sarah’s Key” in chronological fashion, Paquet-Brenner and De Rosnay weave the two tales together with one another. This prevents the film from having a hard separation point halfway through but it also repeatedly rips the viewer away from Sarah’s harrowing story of survival.
Moreover, Julia’s story is far less compelling, especially because the character is underdeveloped. In particular, Julia’s motivations come into question as her obsession with Sarah’s story passes over peculiar and becomes downright creepy – especially due to the lengths she goes to uncover the truth at the disservice to her own family.
Perhaps the negative effect the present-day premise has on the film’s emotional potential makes only half of “Sarah’s Key” a good movie. However, the scenes set it 1942 are as authentic as they are shocking, demonstrating Paquet-Brenner’s brilliance as a director. Moreover, in spite of her very young age, Mayance gives one of the best performances of the year.
“Sarah’s Key” (PG-13 – 111 minutes) is now playing exclusively at Harkins Camelview 5. Visit FirstLook.com for specific showtimes.
Listen to Joseph J. Airdo’s “Movie Maverick” radio segment, every Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. during “The Daily Blender with Jeffry O’Brien” on KBSZ – NBC 1260 AM and 96.1 FM.