“Sarah’s Key,” a French film from director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Walled In”) and adapted from the novel “Elle s’appelait Sarah” by Tatiana De Rosnay, is, like most Holocaust films, very sad, almost unbearably so.

Sarah’s Key

At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company

Kristin Scott Thomas (“Nowhere Boy”), in a terrific performance, stars as Julia Jarmond, a journalist from New York who has settled in Paris with her husband (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”) and their young daughter. Julia is investigating the infamous 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, when thousands of Jews were arrested by the French government and sent to Auschwitz. Julia’s investigation and the banalities of her modern existence are intercut and intertwined with the horrifying experiences of Sarah Starzynski, a young Jewish girl arrested during the Vel d’Hiv, played wonderfully by young French actress Mélusine Mayance. But as hard as the film tries, the juxtaposition of these two stories never feels quite right; it makes too much of the visual contrast between the two time periods, with the cold, sterile and static present at odds with the earthy, turbulent past. Though each is well done, they never quite mesh.

Sarah’s story is thrilling and heart wrenching. She is separated from her parents, but eventually escapes from the concentration camp and begins a journey back to Paris, with the help of a kind old French couple. It’s equally sad and exciting, and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

Cut to the present, when Julia’s domestic problems (she’s pregnant, but her husband doesn’t want another baby), which in any other movie could carry the story, only serve as a tedious, slow lull in Sarah’s narrative, the one the audience really cares about.

Julia’s story gets interesting when she discovers the apartment she is moving into with her husband, whose family lived in it for 60 years from 1942 on, is the same one Sarah and her family lived in before the raid. This further complicates her issues at home, and leads her on a search for Sarah, who she believes might still be alive. But when Sarah’s story merges with the present, and Julia’s search takes over, the film loses steam. It seems as though the filmmakers tried to fit too much of the novel into the film, and the final 15 minutes feel muddled.

Despite its faults, “Sarah’s Key” is beautifully shot and adroitly directed. Even during the often-dull scenes in the present, the power of the images is enough to evoke real emotion from the audience.

Toward the end, Julia asks one of her colleagues, who is appalled at the treatment of the Jews by the French during the war, “How do you know what you’d have done?” This theme — reckoning with the terrible events of the past from the safe refuge of the modern world — is hinted at but, disappointingly, never fully explored. However, Sarah’s story is compelling enough to hold the audience’s interest that “Sarah’s Key” turns out to be a worthwhile watch.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.