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Sarah's Key

A movie directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner

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Holocaust Awareness Diluted by One Woman's Angst

  • Mar 12, 2012
This big screen adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay's novel "Sarah's Key," directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner in some way presents the Holocaust awareness message with greater simplicity and impact than its written counterpart. However, sadly, both the novel and the film's major plot line of Sarah and her key is rectified around the halfway mark of both pieces. As the murkier central story of a journalist whose marital issues and unplanned pregnancy shifts the mass horror of the Vel D'Hiv roundup into the smaller arena of moving past personal tragedy, the significance of the message seems less intense, diluted by one woman's trouble and some trite classroom telling instead of being the sole monumentally emotional grab of the piece. In that sense, the incident seems marginalized in the face of smaller personal issues that effect a few not thousands.

Not that the overall feeling of the film is any different from the book. The fact that over 80,000 Jews were ultimately deported to death camps by French authorities during Marshal Petain's Vichy Government is depicted with a heart-wrenching simplicity as seen through the frightened and cowed eyes of the determined ten-year-old Sarah Starzinsky played with precocious perfection by Mélusine Mayance. Discovering these more personal events triggered by the Vel D'Hiv roundup of 1942 from the vantage point of the present day is Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) who brings her unflappable perseverance to uncovering the details of a disturbing story to light despite the reluctance and ambivalence of others who feel the story might well be best forgotten.

Is Julia just a hysterical woman flooded with pregnancy hormones and angst regarding her marriage that she simply must see the Sarah story to its endpoint?

Writers Serge Joncour and Gilles Paquet-Brenner segue from the past to the present with ease, weaving the atrocities of the past within the arena of guilt and discomfort that defines home for their Julia. Following the book closely, they report Sarah's story adequately, but fall short when the titular key unlocks the door in the wall and quite frankly, there is no where to go from that point on to balance the emotional drain. Thankfully, this writing team decides not to pursue the romantic entanglement in which the novel's Julia eventually indulges. The addition of the William character in De Rosnay's universe seems an attempt to add some yang to all the yin--the idea of having Julia bank her future happiness on Sarah's only son smacks of a contrivance that has no place in a story of such devastating emotional intensity.

Let's face it, the only event that could have turned the tale around and brought out a bright smile and a few tears for theatregoers would have been a complete rewriting of the outcome. Sarah rushes to the cabinet and unlocks the door--or, more practically, Jules and his wife take charge as adults would and move the poor girl out of harm's way so they could open what could well be the macabre sight of the boy's crypt. As the door swings open, surprise--no one is there. The emptiness suggests another mystery--where is the child? Who took him? All of this could have flowed into the present story very nicely and provided the intrepid Julia with a flicker of hope, that she could fan into a huge magazine human-interest feature.

Bottom line? Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of "Sarah's Key" by Tatiana De Rosnay follows the plot of the book faithfully for those who are devoted fans. Young actress Mélusine Mayance and Kristin Scott Thomas as the two leads add solemnity and stellar acting to a story that because it hinges off a devastating negative event that is never balanced by one of equal positive power, it fails to emotionally satisfy. Thankfully, Paquet-Brenner leaves out De Rosnay's contrived ending allowing the overall Holocaust awareness message first and foremost despite weighing against one of the main character's personal problems. Recommended for those who liked the book
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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More Sarah's Key reviews
review by . July 23, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Star Rating:         Sarah’s Key, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, is frustrating in that it doesn’t explore a little known chapter in history. Instead, it uses it as a catalyst for a competently paced but strangely unsatisfying mystery. I’m referring to the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 1942, a Nazi-ordered mass arrest in Paris in which the French police were complicit. According to records, they rounded up over 13,000 people – mainly …
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Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #101
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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About this movie


An intrepid journalist brings the past to life in this gripping drama. An American based in Paris, Julia Jarmond (Tell No One's Kristin Scott Thomas) has been working on a piece about a French atrocity while planning to move into an apartment that belongs to her husband Bertrand's family. During the course of her research, she finds that 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance, a sparky presence) lived in the same Marais flat until 1942 when French authorities wrenched Jewish citizens from their homes during the notorious Vél d'Hiver Roundup (Julia's daughter is only a year older). Unbeknownst to anyone but her parents, Sarah locked up her 4-year-old brother in a hidden closet in hopes of returning to set him free him later, but the trio ends up in a transit camp en route to Auschwitz. Sarah will eventually escape, but the years to come will not be easy. In adapting Tatiana de Rosnay's novel, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the son of a deportee, moves back and forth between Sarah and Julia, who finds out she's pregnant in the midst of trips to Florence and New York, but Bertrand doesn't share her joy. A French farmer (A Prophet's Niels Arestrup) and a food writer (Aidan Quinn) also figure into Sarah's story, which merges with Julia's as she finds a way to carry on her legacy. Much as inJulie and Julia, the past proves more compelling than the present, though Scott Thomas holds the narrative together with the force ...
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Genre: Drama
Release Date: 22 July 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: France: 111 min
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