Anchor Bay // 2010 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 22nd, 2011
Uncover the mystery.
"What's her name?"
Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance, Ricky) was only 10 years old when the French police visited her family during the infamous Vel'd'hiv Roundup of 1942. In an effort to protect her younger brother Michael, Sarah locks the boy in a cupboard and instructs him not to make a sound until she comes back for him. Unfortunately, Sarah and her other family members are imprisoned and then shipped off to Auschwitz. Sarah is quickly separated from the rest of her family, but makes friends with a young girl named Rachel (Sarah Ber), with whom she begins plotting an escape from the camp.
In the present day, middle-aged reporter Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long) learns that she is pregnant. This is a delightful surprise for Julia, as she had wanted another child but had previously assumed that she was too old for such things. However, Julia's husband does not share her joy; he dislikes the thought of raising another child and urges Julia to get an abortion. As the couple's marriage dissolves over this issue, Julia begins investigating the history of an apartment her husband recently inherited from his grandparents. Slowly but surely, we begin to realize how these stories connect.
Sarah's Key contains half an excellent film and half a mediocre one. The former is Sarah's story, which is a moving, sensitive portrait of a child learning to cope with some unspeakable horrors (thankfully, we are reminded more of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas than Life is Beautiful). The latter is Julia's story, which feels like a cutesy framing device that has been mistakenly placed in the foreground. To be sure, Kristin Scott Thomas is a terrific actress and does strong work as Julia, but her story feels almost unforgivably trite in contrast to Sarah's.
Many of the characters who appear in the present-day storyline essentially act as audience surrogates, gasping and marveling along with us as elements of Sarah's story are doled out piece by piece. Sure, there are some connections made and a few scenes which tie into the earlier story in compelling fashion, but Julia's side of the film mostly feels like a needless effort to spoonfeed the audience. Making matters worse is the fact that there actually seems to be a significant gap in the quality of the writing between the two story lines; Sarah's is handled with impressive subtlety while Julia's is exasperatingly heavy-handed (concluding with a mawkish punchline which is more likely to elicit groans than tears).
Considering all of this, I'm hesitant to recommend the film, but the stronger material really is worthwhile. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner does a fine job of drawing credible, naturalistic performances from his actors and bringing similar qualities to his own work. There are no surging strings telling us when to cry or conventional reworkings of moments from other films of this sort. Sarah's Key looks at this young girl's situation with level-headed honesty and is all the better for it. The technical qualities are strong but never draw too much attention to themselves.
The film also benefits from an impressive cast, with young Mayance faring the best as the title character. She handles some difficult scenes with ease and holds her own quite well against an old pro like Niels Arestrup (who does some lovely work in a supporting role which seems a bit too slight for an actor of Arestrup's talent). Thomas moves flawlessly between English and French (if I had to estimate, I'd say roughly 75% of the film is in French) and is never less than credible, but that's only to be expected at this point. There's also a nice supporting turn from Aidan Quinn, who proves one of the most involving figures in the present-day storyline despite being saddled with some of the worst scenes.
Sarah's Key offers an excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer which benefits from superb detail throughout. This is a warm, sharp, crisp-looking film boasting quite a few impressive visuals, and viewers can appreciate every nuance of the top-notch set and costume design with this release. Flesh tones are also warm and natural. My only complaint is that blacks could have been a little bit deeper than they are. The Dolby 5.1 audio gets the job done nicely, with clean, well-captured dialogue generally dominated the track. The low-key music is well-mixed and the modest sound design proves immersive when it needs to be (it's far more prominent during the WWII portion of the film). Supplements are limited to a lengthy, informative making-of featurette (creatively entitled "The Making of Sarah's Key").
Sarah's Key is a well-crafted film featuring some superb moments, but its hampered by the structure of the novel it was adapted from.
Guilty with a sentence of time served.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Official Site