Monday, January 3, 2011

Review: Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key
Dir. Gilles Paquet-Brenners
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 111mins

It must be easy to expect plaudits when one hears of a new film about World War II. No matter how often filmmakers takes audiences back there, no matter how many times those haunting images get projected onto the cinema screen, polite nodding and words like “respectful” and “the human spirit/soul/condition” tend to be the most common reactions. Sarah’s Key is no different, but like Stephen Daldry’s The Reader it uses the modern day to show how WWII still has repercussions to this very day and does so while putting a light on a part of the war that few may know about.

In modern day France an American immigrant, Kristen Scott Thomas’ Julia, and her husband renovate an apartment handed down to them by his parents. Her journalism skills combined with an escalating sense that something tragic happened there leads Julia to the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old Jewish girl, her younger brother and the key that – literally and metaphorically – unlocks everything. Scott Thomas gets to show off her considerable skills yet again as Julia navigates her own personal problems alongside those of Sarah, a girl she never knew and yet feels indebted to for reasons out of her control.

One of the aspects of Sarah’s Key that fascinated me most was the story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, one of many grotesque and inhumane acts of cruelty committed during WWII, but one of the least reported. I had previously been unaware of this undertaking by the French police and was suitably appalled. Recreated in lengthy flashbacks with eye-catching costume and production design and spotted with performances by the likes of Niels Arestrup, the portions of the film dedicated to Sarah’s plight are handled with an appropriate lack of flash, but are still rousing or agonising and painful when necessary.

Not even an actor of her considerable talents can save Sarah’s Key from its own undoing towards the end. The introduction of Aidan Quinn all but grinds the film to a halt and does its best to undo all the good will that director Gilles Paquet-Brenner had built. Several moments feel guffaw-worthy in how spectacularly ridiculous they are, but as the credits rolled I found it easy to forgive. Paquet-Brenner and his co-writer Serge Joncour, adapting from Tatiana De Rosnay’s novel, have succeeded in crafting a sobering film that, while not scaling the heights of recent heights of The Pianist or The Reader, at least doesn’t read like a joke of a WWII film like recent Oscar winner The Counterfeiters. B

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