Requiem in a Minor Key

In the interest of full disclosure, I will aver that I consider Sarah’s Key to be one of the most poorly-written novels I’ve ever read, full of stilted language and cliché-ridden stereotypes instead of fully developed characters who talk like real people. Author Tatiana de Rosnay takes lazy shortcuts, describing what characters are like and how they're feeling instead of showing the reader through detail and observation. Paradoxically then, I held relatively high hopes for the film, figuring it had to be better than the book — especially since it featured Kristin Scott Thomas and Aidan Quinn.

Sarah’s Key contains two intertwined narrative threads. The first is the story of a Parisian Jewish girl named Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), who is 11 years old when the French police arrive late one summer night in 1942 to arrest her family. With the logic of a child, Sarah locks her younger brother in a hidden cabinet in the wall of the family’s apartment, promising to come back for him once she is released — the next day, she figures. What she doesn’t know is that her family has been caught up in the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, an actual historical event in which the French authorities held thousands of Jewish families for days in appalling conditions at a cycling stadium in the heart of Paris before ultimately deporting them to concentration camps, where most of them perished. Throughout the horror of the ensuing days, first in the sweltering velodrome and then in the filthy transit camp where families are separated en route to Auschwitz, Sarah holds on tightly to the key to the secret cabinet and fights for survival so she can return and find her brother.

The contemporary story follows Julia (Thomas), an expatriate American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and their daughter. The history of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup begins as a straightforward assignment for Julia to write an article for the magazine where she works. But the story becomes intensely personal for her when she discovers during her research that the apartment her architect husband is gutting and remodeling before they move into it was originally acquired by his family in the immediate aftermath of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. The flat’s previous occupants? A Jewish family named Starzynski. Thus begins Julia’s quest to discover the fate of Sarah and her brother, a journey that spans two continents and upends the lives of many people.

Not surprisingly, the film delivers its most emotionally intense moments during the wartime narrative, with the young Mayance capturing Sarah’s stoicism and determination. The contemporary story arc, by contrast, is more problematic. True, the book’s pointless subplots have been trimmed or deleted, and the characters have greater complexity — Julia’s husband Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), for example, is more sympathetic, not the selfish philanderer of the novel. And Julia herself is a stronger, more confident protagonist than the self-pitying co-dependent of the book. But despite its potentially powerful theme of the secrecy that damages families even as it is intended to protect them, the modern-day story still manages to fall emotionally flat. Julia’s motivations are never very clear, and her husband’s family doesn’t resist the truth the way they do in the book, so the urgency of her quest seems contrived.

Some of this movie’s problems are a result of the filmmakers’ own decisions. For instance, they have chosen to make Julia something of an expert on the roundup even before she sets out to write her article, instead of someone just learning the horrifying details for the first time. So instead of being someone the viewer could identify with, her character seems pedantic and judgmental. But other problems have their roots in the source material. As in the book, it strains credulity that Julia never entertains the possibility that the tragic story of Sarah and her family might not be a welcome topic of discussion for Sarah’s son, the American-born William Rainsferd (Quinn).

And speaking of Quinn, his character’s relationship with Julia is a puzzle. In the book, it’s strongly implied that Julia is attracted to William, which seems schematic and vaguely inappropriate. In the film, their connection seems to be more emotional than anything else, but this doesn’t really make sense either. Emotionally, William has much higher stakes in this story — it is, after all, the story of his life. For Sarah, on the other hand, this simply appears to be a work assignment that took over her life. Unfortunately for the viewer, the story — at least the modern-day one told in this film — is simply not that engaging.

Sarah’s Key. Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot, and Aidan Quinn star in a film directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, written by Paquet-Brenner and Serge Joncour, and based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay.

Rated PG-13 for violence and emotional intensity related to the Holocaust, scenes of children in peril, and mature plot elements including suicide and abortion; running time: 111 minutes.

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