Okay. Deep breath. This one’s a mix of modern and wartime, petty and intolerably deep, dark and, well, wartime-brutal. It stars Kristin Scott Thomas on a mission to resolve her family’s ownership of a Paris flat almost certainly taken from a detained Jewish family, to tell the story of the detention of Jews in Paris in 1942, and – rather less impressively – hunt down the remains of that family in the 2000s. Scott Thomas and the wartime scenes are terrific, emotional and uncomfortable viewing…what secrets we carry into old age, eh? Sarah’s Key.
Memories make us. That’s my lesson from life. Some are writ large and affect who we are and how our moods rise and fall – their loss is the tragedy of B Wing. Others are tiny nothings, sights, sounds or smells remembered with hope and pleasure. Sarah’s Key is very much about the former.
The present: Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas in full-on grown-up woman mode, makes me feel like a boy in seconds) and her husband are sorting out life and business in ways I didn’t really care about. It boils down to moving into a flat his family has owned since 1942. She wants another kid; he doesn’t. She’s a journalist; he has options in China. Blah – all a bit humdrum, except for the 1942 part…
The past: 1942. The Starzynski family live in the Jewish district of Paris during a repugnant moment in French history (apologies from the State took fifty years): the Vel’ d’hiv Roundup. French police do the deed, taking daughter Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), her mum (Natasha Mashkevich) and father (Arben Bajraktaraj – Harry Potter fans alert!) to the local cycle velodrome with thousands of other Jews. But not before Sarah thinks to hide her little brother in a cupboard. She’s carries the key throughout, as the title demands, but tick-tock…
And then things get awful and real. We follow the family from the velodrome, without food, drink or toilets (and there’s no stinting on people having to shit in corners), out to a camp and separation. Times passes. The men disappear; then the kids are separated from their mothers amid shouting, panicking crowds, water cannoning of its day and awfulness. Auschwitz hangs like a cloud over the absences.
And all through this the boy is locked in that cupboard…
For all its plot-smarts – this is a fiction drawn from a book – these scenes took me back to things Grandpa Gus refused to say. He fought in two wars, my father as well, but from the ‘heroic’ end of things: British men fighting back and good to fly to base. And he still couldn’t bring himself to describe all he’d seen. Sarah’s Key is carried through the subjugation of civilians, their betrayal, degradation and destruction. In the modern world, Scott Thomas’s Julia asks a disgusted colleague how they can be certain of what they would do under those circumstances…it isn’t quite answered.
Sarah and a new friend escape the camp through a show of heart from a guard. They find refuge, albeit only Sarah comes out alive and gets back to the family flat. Mayance is terrific in all her scenes – convincing as a child living through the horrors of adults – but her most chilling moment is when that cupboard door is opened.
The present: and back to the investigation. Okay, they flip-flop more than that. Julia investigates the family in the flat, discovers records of Sarah and where she may have gone in later life…whilst dealing with her husband’s family’s guilt over taking the flat. Cos she really doesn’t want to live in it.
And this is where the film gets tricksy. For old Jack, saddened and educated by the scenes in the 1940s, felt the 1950s and ’60s came across as story-telling for the sake of it rather than landing valuable insights. Julia’s investigation brings in the farmers, Sarah’s youth and travels. All good, but aimless and with an odd stress on Sarah’s beauty. Charlotte Poutrel plays adult Sarah. She is held in stasis, stunning certainly, but paralysed into pretty sadness and few words. Perhaps old Jack here is too old and heterosexual to think more complex thoughts, but the camera basking in her looks bothered me. It echoes an odd moment in the velodrome, when the camera allows Natasha Mashkevich’s beauty to shine through the horror. Lovely, oh yes, but not here. Not this story.
The film meanders as Julia – divorcing – walks into a lightweight Who Do You Think You Are? There’s domestic disarray, familial shaming, and too many jumps around Sarah’s family tree. You want Julia to find her, but the story won’t allow that focus – so enter Aidan Quinn as a tangential proxy to look Julia in the eye. He gives a sterling performance, but it feels like those WDYTYA episodes where a nervous celebrity meets a cheery group of awkward fifth cousins – only he’s in a piss about it.
So. Sarah’s Key is a really good movie, but I wanted it to be a superb one. If the war didn’t cut you too deeply, I’d recommend heading to your TV room and giving it a go. The early scenes are brilliant, the rest of the Twentieth Century a mixed bag, and the story in the Twenty-First a trivial mess. Scott Thomas and Mayance win the acting prizes – powering the story in their times. Poutrel and Quinn get a raw deal, but own their moments. The supporting cast, well, again, wartime gives a relevance and interest that the modern times lack.
The resonance of Sarah’s Key – from war, to family secrets, to old age impacted by its youth – is considerable.
And, oh, that poor boy.