Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) unravels a decades-old wartime mystery in Sarah's Key (2010)
The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup (recently chronicled in the excellent The Round Up, Bosch, 2010) remains the most underexposed tragedy of the last century; lost amongst the dozens of crimes that make up the ugly mosaic of WWII. Believe it or not, only one photograph exists. "They documented everything, the Nazi's", one character questions. "That's what they were known for." "This was not the Germans", Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) replies. "It was the French." On the 16th and 17th of July 1942 the French police, in conjunction with the Nazi's, arrested over 13,000 Jews, placing them in Paris' (in)famous cycling stadium, which has now been demolished for over 50 years. The events of those days remain largely unknown by many people, and that's perhaps why Sarah's Key is such a significant work - it shines a light on a chapter in history too important to forget.
It's for this reason that I wish Sarah's Key was also a great film, but it simply isn't. I half expected the film to be based on a true story, such is the unbelievability of its premise. A story this bizarre could only have come from reality, I thought, and yet it actually comes from Tatiana De Rosnay's 2007 novel of the same name. But then, of course it does! Sarah's Key is so precise in its time-flitting structure and systematic revelation of plot twists that it could only have come from the pages of a door-wedging novel, and the story itself is contrived to the point of irritation. The plot picks up in 2010 with Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), a journalist, covering the story of the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, and picking up on the life of Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), who locked her little brother in a cupboard when the French police came calling on July 16th. The film moves back and forth, scene-by-scene, between the past and the present, and the time periods inform each other as Julia reveals long-lost secrets. The Vel' d'Hiv story is sensitively told, and despite being about escape rather than persecution it manages to portray the harshness of those days well.
The problems with the film arise in Julia's story which, although dominating half the running time, is entirely superfluous, and lacking any dramatic conviction whatsoever. Julia is having problems with her husband, as he seems reluctant about having the child they've been working on for six years. They share several scenes together which are entirely incidental to the main plot, bogging down the pace of a drama which already feels baggy. Scott Thomas turns in an excellent performance - although her role is entirely expository, and the screenplay does her talent no justice - but there's just no point at which I understood her significance in the film. Slowly her life beings to intertwine with Sarah's, and a family connection is revealed. But what's the point? The story would, funnily enough, be entirely better served without Julia in it. The real heart lies in Sarah's story, and the 1942 scenes are actually incredibly well executed - those characters are really well developed, and their fates pack an emotional punch. The moment where Sarah escapes from the camp - this isn't a spoiler, it's the point of the first half - is an elating experience, and truly raises the spirits. If only we then didn't immediately cut back to another convoluted interlude with Julia, who may look human, but exists entirely as a writer's device.
Sarah's Key wraps up a topic of great seriousness and sensitivity in a story that, frankly, even Dan Brown could have made more plausible. It's not that it's a bad film per se, as it's technically very well made. It's just, narratively speaking, utter claptrap.