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Our review of Sarah's Key, published November 22nd, 2011, is also available.
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Gilles Paquet-Brenner's big-screen adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay's best-selling novel Sarah's Key gracefully unifies two absorbing stories characterized mainly by the power of courage and persistence of guilt. Shifting between two different time periods and multiple generations, the critically acclaimed Sarah's Key manages to evoke intense feelings in viewers through clever writing, stunning visuals, and a handful of memorable performances you won't soon forget.
Facts of the Case
Sarah's Key first introduces us to Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas, Leaving), a curious American journalist who lives in Paris and keeps herself busy prepping a feature story about the notorious 1942 roundup of Jewish families at the Vel' d'Hiv. Coincidentally, her research reveals that the very apartment she is about to move into once belonged to the Jewish family of ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), who locked her younger brother in a hidden closet when French police came to forcibly relocate them to a transit camp.
Determined to rejoin and free her beloved brother, Sarah goes above and beyond to break out of the camp and somehow find her way back to Paris, which quickly ends up proving to be a much greater challenge than expected. The movie jumps back and forth between Sarah and Julia, who stops at nothing to find out what exactly happened to the courageous young girl during the years following her dramatic escape.
Moving back and forth between connected stories set at different times provides many opportunities for a movie to maintain a high level of entertainment and generate curiosity to keep audiences guessing until the very end. On the flip side, this plot structure doesn't always guarantee both stories remain equally captivating, and in Sarah's Key, Sarah's journey back to Paris and the subsequent events easily overshadow Julia's quest to uncover the past. That said, Julia's passionate mission certainly doesn't harm the film; it merely fails to match the suspense and heartrending mood surrounding Sarah's adventures.
While Sarah's heartbreaking tale examines the horrors of World War II for Jewish families in Paris, Julia's part follows the journalist's battle with guilt and her obsession with Sarah's fate. Additionally, what heightens the tension for Julia is an unexpected pregnancy that puts an extra strain on the relationship with her husband. Uncertain about whether to keep the baby, Julia slowly manages to broaden her perspective on life and make the right decision based on the emotional effort she puts into digging up Sarah's unfortunate past.
This directly ties into one of the film's bigger argument that the past can heavily influence the present. Sarah's life literally becomes the key to Julia's troubles, further stressing the importance of keeping old stories alive across multiple generations. If it weren't for Julia's determination to find out what happened to the girl who locked her little brother into a closet for his own protection, the real truth about Sarah's fate would never surface. The filmmakers behind Sarah's Key put a lot of effort into convincingly connecting the two stories without prematurely revealing the mysterious aspect of Sarah's legacy, and the work has certainly paid off.
The film also focuses on one of the darker sides of French history, reminding people that the Germans were not the sole villains during the war. In this particular case, local French authorities assisted the Nazis by gathering Jewish families at the Vel' d'Hiv before moving them to transit camps, crushing hopes for the prisoners to find help among those who should be resisting the enemy. Despite the film's emphasis on the stories of Julia and Sarah, the plot never abandons the importance of the historical backdrop.
Storylines aside, Sarah's Key has a lot more going for it. Besides stunning visuals, top-notch production values and a great score, Paquet-Brenner's adaptation benefits mostly from its brilliant cast. Kristin Scott Thomas takes full control of her character right from the start, offering viewers one of her finest and emotionally charged performances in years. Mayance is equally fascinating in the difficult role of Sarah, and she's backed by a strong supporting cast that includes a particularly memorable appearance by Niels Arestrup.
Sarah's Key (Blu-ray) includes a superb 2.35:1 non-anamorphic 1080p presentation boasting a sharp picture and compelling color balance. Accompanying the widescreen transfer is a terrific DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio track. The only bonus you'll find on the disc is a highly informative one-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, which features in-depth interviews with author Tatiana de Rosnay and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and offers a detailed look at the origin of the project and the making of the movie.
Although Sarah's Key has its imperfections, I found it quite easy to look past any weaknesses and allow the film to fully capture my attention from the get-go. Touching, fast-paced, and visually intriguing, this successful adaptation proves that cleverly developed World War II stories never get old, especially not on screen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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