In July 1942, Paris police arrested hundreds of Jewish families, held them at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, then transferred them to a nearby internment camp. Husbands were separated from wives, children torn away from their mothers. Most were shipped on trains to exterminations camps, but a few managed to escape.
Sarah’s Key, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s reverent adaptation of French journalist and novelist Tatiana de Rosnay’s 2007 bestseller, opens with the panic that happens in one apartment just before the police bust in. Ten-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) locks her younger brother in a cupboard, promising to return in a few hours. As she and her parents huddle in the velodrome, awaiting their fate, Sarah clutches the key – which the camera makes sure we know represents the tactile symbol of her determination to survive so she can rescue her brother.
Sarah’s story is interwoven with that of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and teenage daughter. While researching an article about the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (as the event is commonly referred to), Julia stumbles on a family connection to Sarah. The apartment where Sarah’s family was living was taken over by her husband’s family shortly after the roundup.
Now the apartment is about to be renovated so Julia and her husband can move in – but before that can happen, she must uncover the truth. With a glowing intensity, Scott Thomas delivers a quiet but stellar performance as the journalist who becomes fixated on discovering what happened to Sarah, while struggling with a strained marriage and the realization that she will eventually have to confront her husband’s elders.
The film moves back and forth between these two stories of obsession, slowly at first but with an increasing urgency. This has the unfortunate effect of gradually making you feel like you’re flipping between two movies via a remote you can’t control – it works visually, but the emotional trajectories never achieve a satisfying rhythm.
But the brisk pacing also means Sarah’s Key rarely wallows in overly sentimental moments.
Sarah’s narrative line, in particular, intimately portrays the horrors of the roundup and internment camp, and is propelled by the small and large acts of compassion that mark a survivor’s journey. A policeman lifts the barbed wire fence so Sarah and another girl can escape the internment camp after their parents have been taken away. A grumpy farmer takes the girls in and, on his wife’s urging, reluctantly agrees to protect Sarah after the other girl dies of illness.
With the key still tight in her first, Sarah won’t rest until she convinces the couple to take the enormous risk of accompanying her to Paris so she can fulfill her promise. Sarah’s Key hinges on this small act of bravery – which we realize is less about turning a key than opening a door to one person’s future.
The complex web of revelations that follow – which eventually literally connect the two stories – ends up taking on a less dramatic, more procedural feel, but Scott Thomas’s portrayal of her character’s emotional transition ensures Sarah’s Key will keep your heart open.
Sarah’s Key opens in Toronto and Ottawa Aug. 19, and in Vancouver Aug. 26.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
- Screenplay by Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner
- Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance and Aiden Quinn.
- (In English and French, with English subtitles)