Shoah Tale Loses Punch On Screen

Adapted from novel, ‘Sarah’s Key,’ with Kristen Scott Thomas, lacks dramatic jolt.

07/19/2011
Jewish Week Film Critic
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“Sarah’s Key,” the new film by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, which opens on July 22, is a textbook case of the pitfalls of adapting a novel for the screen.

For the first hour of its 102-minute running time, the film is an austere, somber meditation on the long-lasting effects of the Holocaust in the lives of subsequent generations of the families of survivors; it is emotionally accessible and deeply felt, with a dark secret at its heart that holds the viewers attention despite some small missteps.

But the last 40 minutes, while well-crafted and nicely observed, cannot live up to the first 60, and the resulting film is an entirely admirable and honorable failure, but a failure nonetheless.

The novel, by French author Tatiana de Rosnay, was a huge seller both in France and America. The story it tells is relatively simple, but the structure is, by design, complex, deliberately deflecting any potential sentimentality into the intricacies of several parallel plotlines, past and present. Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a journalist working on a magazine article about the notorious 1942 roundup of Jews who were sent to the Vel d’Hiv stadium before being transported east to the death camps.

In the meantime, we also follow the story of Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), a 10-year-old caught up in the sweep; she has hidden her little brother in a locked closet, promising to return to free him.

For the film’s first hour, the film follows these two storylines until they begin to intersect. The material has an innate power, and Paquet-Brenner’s visually rigorous treatment makes it at once both compelling and chilling. Sarah’s odyssey, which will include the loss of both her parents and a suspenseful escape from a children’s transit camp, will inevitably take her back to the apartment in Paris and the locked closet. But Julia’s search becomes complicated by her growing realization that the newly refurbished apartment her husband is so proud of is, in fact, the same apartment that once housed Sarah’s family.

When we finally discover what happened to Sarah’s brother, the impact is devastating for all concerned. Paquet-Brenner’s treatment of that moment is of a piece with the entire film, all the more potent for being muted. The imagination can supply greater horrors than any special-effects or makeup man can dream.

Therein lies the film’s problem. The second half -- despite the best efforts of the director and co-screenwriter Serge Joncour – inevitably must pale in comparison with the tragedy of the first section. Underlying the first part of the film is a question that the second part must deal with more directly: how do you move on from great trauma to live in the present? No less important, what are the responsibilities of the present to the past? These are compelling questions, of course, but they lack the dramatic jolt of the more fraught life-and-death issues of the Shoah in its own time. And as a result, for all its thoughtfulness, the remainder of “Sarah’s Key” is less effective dramatically.

And yet, the film has considerable merit. Kristin Scott Thomas is, as always, a pillar of intelligence whose emotional fires are under control; she is the rock on which the entire film is firmly based. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Niels Arestrup in what can only be described as the “Michel Simon foxy grandpa” role, made all the more palatable by Arestrup’s cool restraint.

It would be wrong to say that by following the novel, Paquet-Brenner has betrayed it. Rosnay apparently was delighted by the result. But the demands of literature and the demands of cinema often diverge, and this time the fork in the road didn’t do anyone a favor.

“Sarah’s Key,” directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, opens here Friday, July 22. Check listings for theaters.

Comments

I felt completely the opposite--the book is not particularly well written, and the modern story was a distraction. The film is gripping, and the modern story worked well as a counterpoint to the Holocaust story.

Maybe this is really "good book, better movie." The important thing is that we see a movie about the holocaust and keep that period in the mind of younger generations. Almost seventy years have passed since then. We must make certain the ensuing generations remember.

I disagree with Mr Robinson's Review.In my opinion this is the best Holocaust movie that I have seen lately.I think he is the one that missed the point of the movie and not the director

The book was one of those rare reads that you can't put down. Sorry to hear the movie didn't follow suit.

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