“Sarah’s Key” is what some would say is yet another movie dealing with the Holocaust and its impact on us all, but do not be fooled into thinking it is going to be the same old thing. Based on the novel “Her Name Was Sarah” by Tatiana de Rosnay, it ventures into this dark part of history from a different perspective as we watch the French army and bureaucracy aiding the Nazi party as they rounded up Jews and shipped them to Auschwitz; this event was called the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. As the story moves back and forth in time from 1942 to 2009, American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) works to solve a decades-old mystery which can no longer remain hidden, and these days we are all sick of things remaining hidden.
In 2009, Julia has moved into an apartment with her French husband and teenage daughter. She had previously written a celebrated article about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup, and he soon learns her husband inherited the apartment from his grandparents who came into possession of it during the 1940’s. From there, she becomes obsessed in learning about the apartment’s history, and she learns it was the scene of an unspeakable incident. Finding out the truth about this incident, however, proves to be extremely difficult as her family sees it as too damaging to reveal to the world at large.
Julia’s main focus is centered on a young girl named Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) who hid her little brother Michel in a closet to keep him from getting rounded up by the Nazis along with everyone else. She makes him promise to stay in the closet until she returns, and she takes with her the only key which can unlock it. But Sarah soon realizes no one will be going back home anytime soon, and she escapes her captors in a desperate attempt to save Michel before it’s too late.
Like Stephen Daldry did with “The Reader,” director Gilles Paquet-Brenner makes the transitions between the past and present feel seamless to where it never feels jarring. He also avoids turning “Sarah’s Key” into a schmaltz fest begging for Oscar consideration which is quite the relief. By getting naturalistic performances from the cast, he creates an atmosphere which feels real and not exaggerated for effect. You end up getting caught up so emotionally in the story and its characters to where you do not feel like you’re watching just any motion picture.
Thomas is an amazing actress who never gets the same acclaim actresses like Meryl Streep or Viola Davis do on a regular basis. Maybe it is because her acting is not as theatrical, but Thomas’ strength is in inhabiting characters to where you never catch her acting. She pulls off a flawless American accent to where she makes the act look effortless, and she speaks fluent French ever so beautifully.
Attention must also be paid to Mélusine Mayance who gives a very believable performance as the young Sarah. Called upon to portray a child going through horribly nightmarish circumstances, Mayance holds her own amongst the adults, and she breaks your heart through her utter commitment to the character she portrays. Throughout, she makes you share Sarah’s desperation in getting to her little brother before someone else does, and she makes you feel her accomplishments and disappointments in every which way.
“Sarah’s Key” is one of those movies I find it hard to find any fault with it. Everything seems to fit together perfectly, and nothing ever appears superfluous to the story. While it treads the well-worn ground of Holocaust movies and of what happened to millions of Jews, it finds an interesting angle by looking at the complicity of the French in this atrocity. It never did get much of a release as it spent little time in theaters near you, and you will probably be hearing about it more about on physical and digital media. Here is hoping that it finds a bigger audience than the one it has already gotten to date.
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