Film review - Sarah's Key

Tatiana de Rosnay struggled for three years to get her book about the roundup of Jews in 1942 Nazi-occupied Paris published. Giles Paquet Brenner found similar problems, for different reasons, when he tried to attract funding for his screen adaptation. De Rosnay later went on to sell 5 million copies in 40 countries and Paquet Brenner will, no doubt, be hoping for similar success with his film adaptation, opening in the UK this month.

It will be an uncomfortable subject for many. The roundup of Jews in Paris on 16 and 17 July 1942 was a Nazi ordered mass arrest, conducted by the French police. Over 13,000 victims were arrested and held at the VĂ©lodrome d'Hiver before being sent to internment camps.

Sarah’s Key focuses on Sarah (Melusine Mayance), a 10-year-old girl who attempts to save her younger brother from the roundup by locking him in a wardrobe, and the quest of a modern-day American journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristen Scott Thomas), who is researching an article about the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup.

Julia is horrified to discover that the apartment she is about to move into with her French husband belonged to a Jewish family, one of the many victims who were forced out of their home. Her husband’s family moved into the property shortly after the mass arrests. Julia becomes obsessed with finding out if they were at all complicit in the roundup and to discover what happened to Sarah.

The film tracks back and forth between Sarah’s story, her internment in a camp, her separation from her parents and her subsequent escape, and 45-year-old Julia’s own emotional journey when she discovers that she is pregnant and that her husband does not want her to have the child. Sarah’s story leads Julia to question her own comfortable existence and her future with her husband.

The combination of Serge Joncour’s and Paquet Brenner’s sensitive adaptation, a brilliant cast, and Pascal Ridao’s cinematography has helped produced an accessible and thought-provoking movie. Some of the early scenes, shot on a hand-held camera and short lenses, are almost unbearable to watch but by interspersing these scenes with Julia’s investigation, Paquet Brenner stops the film from descending into emotional overload and retains its dramatic tension.

Many will probably want to forget this dark moment in France’s past but what makes Sarah’s Key so refreshing is that it is not the usual holocaust movie that divides collaborators and resistance fighters into two camps. It focuses on ordinary lives – those people who averted their gaze from the horrors being played out in front of them and tried, merely, to survive. Then there are the unwilling heroes, like the French farmer (Niels Arestrup) who saves Sarah’s life and brings her up as his own daughter.

By telling Sarah’s story Paquet Brenner gives a human face to the tragedy and the end result is an absorbing film that moves and educates in equal measure. Mayance and Scott Thomas’ award-winning performances will hopefully ensure that this stunning screen adaptation achieves similar acclaim to the book. Not to be missed.

Originally published in The Playground