Sarah’s Key is part wartime drama, journalistic inquisition, familial melodrama and intergenerational era-hopper. The fact that it is none of these to a satisfactorily powerful standard leaves it short of the kind of impact it would like to think it has.
The plot’s stepping off point is one if the most inglorious episodes in the history of Vichy, France– the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Sarah is a 10 year old who has just locked her brother in the closet of their bedroom to protect him from being carted off as part of the mass arrest of the Jewish population in central Paris. She, her father and mother are all taken however and – along with thousands of others – thrown into an old Parisian Velodrome. Somehow, Sarah must get back to release her brother.
Cut to the present-day and journalist Kirsten Scott Thomas wants to tell the story of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup to the readership of her rather elegant French based Newsweek-esque publication. After she finds out her new Paris family home is in one of the old Jewish neighbourhoods (and that her husband’s family came into its possession shortly after the Round-up) she gradually becomes obsessed with her story. And before you can “Quest!” she’s assembling the pieces of one family’s tragedy and another’s accidental inheritance of such.
The historical and contemporary stories are intertwined and parallel each other to the close. Directly confronting French complicity, collaboration and anti-Semitism (latent or imported) is avoided in favour of broad-brush WWII touchstones – separated screaming families, callous Nazi guards, the refuge of kindly rural types. The film makes a play for some kind of examination of French guilt and we get a brief glimpse of the modern day Velodrome site – now demolished – and (with the cold irony of administrative bureaucracy) a Ministry for Interior building now occupying the land. While Chirac’s 1995 apology on behalf of the French state get a cursory look-in.
Mélusine Mayance gives a stellar performance as Sarah. The swelling soundtrack from Max Richter injects some added emotional intensity – and it works – particularly at one undoubtedly moving moment of Sarah’s journey back to her brother.
But the final 20 minutes seems surplus to requirements and the story elongates to a strangely damp close. There are glimpses of the powerful movie it could have been; and it’s the interesting aspects left unexplored that stand out. The odd dynamic of the young girls left alone in the work camps with the Guards after their mothers and older siblings were shipped out, the grown-up Sarah making a new life in New York, the darker story of this wild, edgy, damaged Sarah. In the canon of WWII films this is a slight effort with undoubted glimpses of potency but not enough focus to pull it all together.