By Gary Murray
Starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot Michel Duchaussoy, Dominique Frot, Gisele Casadesus Aidan Quinn and Natasha Mashkevich
Written by Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Based on the novel Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Running time 100 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE
Stories about WWII never seem to get old. The atrocity to other peoples becomes a brutal reflection of how ideology overcomes humanity and how group think can lead down the path of horrible consequences. The Nazi horror is a complex subject that easily lends to drama. Some of the greatest films ever made have been about the battle between the Allies and the Axis. Patton, Saving Private Ryan, Shindler’s List, Casablanca and The Dirty Dozen are just a taste of the impressive titles about the war. Sure to be added to that list is one of the best films of 2011, Sarah’s Key.
The film is of two intertwining stories that take place sixty years apart. The basic story is of young Sarah (Melusine Mayance), a French Jewish girl in 1942. The French government comes to her home to round up the family and Sarah hides her little brother in the cupboard, thinking that they will be back in just a few minutes.
Very soon, Sarah finds out that they are taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a bicycle racing stadium. The place in not set up to take so many and soon the toilets are over run and the Jews have to defecate on the floor. With no food and no water, the conditions go from bad to deplorable. All the time Sarah wants to get out and rescue her little brother who she locked in a cupboard. Eventually, all the Jews are taken to a concentration camp in another part of France. First the men are separated from their families, then the women from their children. In one of the most heart-breaking moments of the movie, Sarah is forcibly taken from her mother.
Finally alone, Sarah plans her escape with another little girl. They are eventually taken-in by a kindly older couple. With steadfast determination, Sarah does everything she can to get back to Paris and to the one left behind.
The other story is about an American, Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas). She is a reporter who stumbles on the story of the Vélodrome d’Hiver round-up. Though she is married to a Frenchman, Julia finds that no one seems to know anything about what happened in her beloved city decades ago. She slowly goes from interested researcher to advocate for truth. Her search into a past that no one wants dug into drives her to confront her father-in-law which turns up a family secret that has been buried for decades.
There are not enough superlatives in the thesaurus to describe this film. The acting is top-notch. Kristen Scott Thomas commands the screen as the reporter searching for the truth. When she goes from interested reporter to impassioned advocate, the heartfelt journey is both sympathetic and complete.
Little Melusine Mayance was just brilliant as the young Sarah. She has grit and determination beyond her years while still carrying on a childlike innocence. This is an Oscar worthy performance, one of the best of 2011.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner delivers one of the most impressive works in recent years. He seamlessly goes from one story to the other smoothly, weaving in such different stories into a distinct whole. This is a masterwork of both camera and story taking divergent elements and combining into a tapestry of cinema.
I was surprised to find out that the Vélodrome d’Hiver Round-up was not more well-known. I naively assumed that everyone knew that the invaded governments of Europe just handed over all their Jews to the Nazi horde. It wasn’t just a French situation, every European government did it. I guess that I read too much war history.
Sarah’s Key is the best film of 2011 so far. It should make my top ten of the year. This powerful film is what separates mere films from works of art. It, along with films like Shindler’s List, should be a part of every school history class. If this film doesn’t just rip your heart out of your chest, you may not even have an emotional core.