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A disappointing handling of an important story
on 28 November 2011
The core narrative of Sarah's Key is a very moving and effectively filmed piece which gives powerful expression to an episode in WW2 which I suspect will be unfamiliar to many: the French state's active complicity in the rounding-up and deportation of French Jews to the camps in the east. The 'past' section of the film is appropriately powerful stuff: claustrophobic settings, the camera taking us into the heart of Sarah's experience, sometimes with queasy and brutal effect from hand held footage, and strong performances, especially from the the little girl in the title. This part of the film is never sentimentalised and is all the more effective for that.
Unfortunately, this part, supposedly the heart of the film, is accessed through a contemporary narrative which provides the motivation for Scott Thomas's (the American, Julia's) investigation of the past as she explores how the flat she will be living in with her architect husband came to be in the ownership of his (the Tezacs) family, only weeks after the arrest of the Jewish population. This works reasonably well initially as this gets us into Sarah's shocking story, and in its exploration of the culpability of her in-laws who might have taken advantage of the hideous round-up to acquire a home.
However, the film loses its way soon after the deeply affecting discovery Sarah makes of her brother's fate, a fate for which Sarah sees herself as being responsible. This is powerful stuff, all the more shocking for the director's restraint in NOT showing us what Sarah sees: her reaction speaks volumes. But from this point onwards it is downhill as the focus shifts rather more towards Julia's personal search for the truth about Sarah's fate, her own scruples re the flat and marital conflict regarding her pregnancy after years of infertility. The emotional temperature and power of the film is frittered away: discovery of Sarah's post-war life is uncomfortably marginalised, for me, by the globe trotting search Julia makes to uncover it and the pregnancy subplot. (Frankly, what engages my interest in this film is Sarah's story and not Julia's, beyond recognising it as a means of accessing the main story.
The film seems to be about to end several times, and the more often this happens, the more I wished it would: somehow, Julia's story seems increasingly an emotional and even sentimental distraction from an episode in history we should all know about. For me this aspect of the film very nearly swamps its emotional heart and verges on turning the story into an airport read. (Interestingly, the dvd cover prioritises Julia over Sarah: yes, I know there are audience appeal reasons for doing that, and that's what's at work behind the narrative clumsiness, too, maximising star exposure.) KST has been in some wonderful French films, but unfortunately, this is only OK.