Wednesday, August 24, 2011

REVIEW: Sarah's Key (2011)

Sarah's Key (2011). Original Title: Elle s'appellait Sarah. Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance and Niels Arestrup. In French and English with English subtitles.

I was not a fan of Tatiana de Rosnay's 2008 novel of the same name on which this movie was based.  Or, rather, I was half a fan. The novel, like the movie, intercut the stories of Sarah Starzinsky, a French Jewish girl captured in the 1942 Vel d'Hiv roundup, with that of Julia Jarmond, a modern-day American journalist living in Paris. Julia stumbles on to Sarah's story when she's researching the Vel d'Hiv and realizes that her husband's family occupies an apartment once belonging to Sarah and her family. I loved Sarah's story and the tight, literary way de Rosnay told it; I disliked Julia and the chattier, chick-lit style of her sections. I approached the movie with trepidation, but I was curious to see what the filmmakers would do with it. And I love Kristin Scott-Thomas.

So I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed the movie. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner serves up a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, complete with almost all the same maudlin, manipulative twists the book takes, but somehow it just doesn't seem as annoying on the screen. I give Scott-Thomas a lot of the credit for making Julia significantly more likeable and sympathetic. There was some judicious editing of her character as well- there's less of the novel's Julia's problems with her boss, her family and the French in general, and less complaining generally. And the little girl who played Sarah, Mélusine Mayance, was wonderful- tough and cheeky but vulnerable too, her sequences were the best in the movie, just like they were in the book.

I had a couple of issues with the movie, but they are minor. The roundup itself of French Jews takes place right at the beginning of the movie and is presented without any context or backstory; there's no sense of a bigger picture. I didn't feel the trauma of it the way I did in the very good La Rafle, a nonfictional account of the Vel d'Hiv roundup. I recommend you see that very good film for a fuller depiction of the roundup. Aidan Quinn was risible as Sarah's adult son, with perhaps one of the worst French accents I've heard. We could have done without him. I mentioned how faithful Paquet-Brenner is to the book's maudlin twists. I think I said at the time I read the book how Hollywood-ready those were and Paquet-Brenner proved me right.

Overall I thought Sarah's Key was a fine art-house film, not outstanding or anything but fine, especially if you enjoyed the book. If you didn't, or if you haven't read the book, look around your area for screenings of La Rafle. It's a better movie and it's a true story, too.

Rating: RENT

Buy movie tickets online now!

I'm a Fandango affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the movie for the most part. I hate when accents are so off though. You think they could get those right for a big movie! We felt the same about the book, though I don't think I found Julia as annoying as you did. ;)

  2. Is this film in French? I saw another French film Kristin Scott Thomas was in called "I've Loved You So Long" and its on my list of all-time favorites.

  3. Shieldmaiden96, it's half and half in French and English. K S-T speaks both in the movie.

  4. I didn't read the book partly because of the mixed reviews; I'm glad the movie was good. It's a shame there were manipulative plot twists. With such a powerful subject, the story should be able to stand on its own without emotional manipulation.