Sarah’s Key is based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay that is a national bestseller. I have not read the novel. It is a rare occasion when I have not read the novel before seeing the film, but Tatiana herself said that the film translation was very close to the book.
The story of Sarah’s Key surrounds events that many may have never heard about or even studied in school. During World War II, the French government under German occupation rounded up French Jews and took them to Vélodrome d’Hiver, an arena of sorts. This event is referred to as the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. The mass of people spent five days there with no bathrooms and hardly any food or water before being sent to other camps.
There is a fictional story that is woven into these events. Sarah Starzynski is a young girl who is taken along with her mother to the Vélodrome. Before leaving their apartment with her mother, Sarah locks her younger brother in the hidden closet telling him to be quiet. She takes the key to the lock with her. Her mother finds out soon after the police arrive that the boy is in the closet after Sarah shows her the key. While the act was to keep him safe, the ordeal the family is put in lasts longer than Sarah expected. After meeting up with the father, the family is taken to the Vélodrome, and then on to holding camps where the family is separated one by one. Through this all, Sarah is always anxious to get back to the apartment and find her brother.
There is a second story woven into the first. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist married to a French man, Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot), and they have a daughter. She speaks fluent French and the family has relocated to Paris. They are moving into Bertrand’s grandparents’ old apartment, which will undergo a renovation before they move in. One of the first news stories that Julia works on in Paris is about Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and the upcoming anniversary. She gets pulled into the research for the story and finds out that her husband’s family may have had some kind of involvement in it.
I do not want to give away too much as the trailer leaves doubt as to why the Julia is investigating the fates of Sarah and her brother, and how they are intertwined. She finds out they are not on the list of those French Jews who were transported to camps and wants to figure out what happened to them. The main point of interest for the audience is whether Sarah is able to get back to her brother in the closet and save him. After this is answered, Sarah’s life is continued and what she becomes. Julia also has a small epilogue at the end of the film that answers lingering questions about what happens to her after her research has concluded.
The film is subtitled in English as most of the movie is in French. I like foreign films, and I know many do not because they do not want to “read” a movie. I found myself so engrossed in the film and the story, that the day after, I realized that I did not even really remember the subtitles. It is that good of story that the subtitles are not bothersome.
Kristin Scott Thomas has been in French films occasionally as she is fluent in French and has lived in France since she was a teen. Her character speaks both in French and English in the film. She is a very accomplished actress and she does not disappoint in the role of Julia. The girl who plays Sarah Starzynski, Mélusine Mayance, is equally as gifted as Kristin Scott Thomas as she is on screen as much and for a kid to understand what her character is going through is remarkable. The young woman who plays the older Sarah, Charlotte Poutrel, is stunning. I do not remember her speaking much if at all, but as soon as she appeared on screen, I remember thinking to myself that she is gorgeous. It is a good transformation to see the young Sarah grow up into a beautiful woman.
Sarah’s Key is an absolutely brilliant, beautiful film. The stories of Sarah and Julia are both equally intriguing, and you take the path with Julia to find out what happens in the end. It is equally part history lesson, drama, and mystery with superb actors. I hope Sarah’s Key will be discovered and seen by many moviegoers who may not normally see a film with subtitles. They will be surprised.
I give Sarah’s Key 4 “keys” out of 5.