Film Review: Sarah's Key

Gripping, twisty Holocaust drama unravels with teasing suspense and emotional payoffs, as a present-day journalist investigates the tragedy of a French-Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Sarah's Key, beautifully adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel of the same title, derives much of its considerable force from another fine performance by Kristin Scott Thomas in what seems like a custom-made role. Seamlessly entwining events from both past and present, the film also seems custom-made for art-house fans who show up for movie experiences of a high order.

Scott Thomas is Paris-based American Julia Jarmond, a smart, bilingual journalist with an upscale magazine who is also mother to teen daughter Zoe (Karina Hin) and wife to busy husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot).

Things on the home front could be smoother, as Bertrand is an obsessed workaholic (those China deals!). But it’s uncertainties related to the apartment the couple have obtained from Julia’s in-laws—Mamé (Gisèle Casadesus), Bertrand's grandmother, and his father Edouard (Michel Duchaussoy)—that will further Julia down her own obsessive path.

After Julia and Edouard begin renovation, Julia discovers that the place has a dark history, dating from the Occupation. That her in-laws got the apartment in August 1942 is pivotal. As happens in well-told stories, the truth behind what transpired progresses bit by intriguing bit as past and present converge to a satisfying if poignant ending.

The past is Sarah Starzynski’s tale of the tragic events that befell her and her Jewish family, beginning in Paris where they were living during the Nazi Occupation. The second thread follows Julia's growing need to uncover what happened to the Starzynskis and to what degree Bertrand’s family might have been implicated.

The "key" to both past and present is the eponymous one that ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) used when she locked her little brother Michel (Paul Mercier) in a family closet just before the French Milice (the notorious Nazi-affiliated unit of the French police) stormed the family apartment in July 1942. Their raid was part of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of thousands of French Jews taken to the winter bike-racing stadium, where they lived in unspeakable conditions prior to transport east to the transit and death camps.

Julia gradually learns that Sarah and her parents were eventually separated and sent to the camps. Sarah cleverly managed to make a miraculous escape, always holding on to the precious key as she was determined to return to the apartment and rescue Michel. Lost and starving as an escapee, she roamed the woods and fields, eventually finding refuge in the home of reluctant, gruff villager Jules Dufaure (Niels Arestrup), who eventually became her savior and raised her.

Julia also becomes aware that her in-laws moved into the Starzynski apartment right after the family was hauled away. Did her in-laws collaborate in any way in the injustices?

Moving throughout Europe and on to New York, Sarah’s Key constantly builds with twists and turns as it reveals what happened and to whom. Beyond revelations relating to Bertrand’s family, suspense intensifies as Julia learns more and more about Sarah, who grows from child to woman and embraces a new life. In the hands of script co-writers Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour, the story, Sarah’s especially, is complex—a nonstop accumulation of big and little surprises—but always intriguing to follow. Awash in alternating wonderful, horrifying and tear-inducing moments, Sarah’s Key delivers.