Sarah’s Key would like to reassure you that there is still a place in this world—or at least in its movie theaters—for the grave Holocaust drama of child endangerment.
While it may at first seem unfairly anesthetizing to stage such drama in flashbacks and in French, that double layer of distance actually has a lot to do with why this film is so grave—well, that, and the central presence of Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays a modern-day Paris journalist excavating her family’s unsettling connection to a World War II atrocity.
The source of director Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s solemn, sentimental film is Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, itself derived from the so-called Vél’ d’Hiv Roundup of 1942, one of those true and tragic but lesser-known historical episodes that tend not to get fully processed until somebody can rationalize making a buck off of them. Filmgoers inclined to wag their fingers at Inglourious Basterds might want to consider amending that indictment to include a piece of work such as Sarah’s Key, as surely a ceaseless surplus of excessively tasteful Nazi movies at least partly explains the appetite for Quentin Tarantino’s excessively distasteful one.
Anyway, yes, Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) is the endangered child, although importantly not the only one. Her eponymous key opens the secret closet into which she stuffs her little brother for his own safety before being taken away with her parents, leading to what we know from all those other films will be either doom or spirit triumph. The journalist’s retrospective comprehension of and connection to all of this is for us to figure out and for Paquet-Brenner to stretch out.
Although Scott Thomas supplies the understated bilingual dignity we expect from her and a proper European prestige picture, Paquet-Brenner’s script, co-written with Serge Joncour, labors overmuch when setting up its poignant payoffs. There’s a good instinct here for how people’s lives pile up messily atop the devastation of grievous historical circumstances, but the result is spread thin with redundant suffering, stiffly superfluous explanations and short-changed supporting characters.
As Sarah, Mayance is first obviously hapless, then affectedly heroic. Aidan Quinn, who arrives late and makes much of what little he’s been given, plays a present-day emotional stakeholder. He has a scene with Scott Thomas that’s a real knockout, but there’s something inherently unsatisfying about catharsis that results mostly from one’s desire to get it over with already.
Sarah’s Key is a solid three-star affair, sure, in which the oft-forgotten fact of French Holocaust participation begets a forgettable film. It’s not the first at that; there’s also The Round Up, with Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent. Didn’t see that one coming? Well, these things come and go.