Rated: PG-13 Reviewed by: Jim Release date: July 22, 2011 Released by: The Weinstein Company
This new drama adds mystery to its more harrowing elements in a credible way as it shifts between eras nearly seventy years apart. Yes, it may have a familiarity to many a Holocaust rendering on celluloid, but it's still done with much taut authenticity without devolving into mushy melodrama.
Sarah's Key (in French, English, and less in German and Italian with subtitles) stars Kristin Scott-Thomas, Frederic Pierrot, Charlotte Poutrel, and Melusine Mayance, among a well-cast mainly French ensemble.
Scott-Thomas is in sharp form as an American, magazine reporter Julia Jarmond with married husband Bertrand (Pierrot) in Paris during some home renovation in the Marais. She's commissioned to write about those in this area in 1942 routed to extreme squalor as detained by Nazis, one of the notorious roundups at that time.
With a connection to the place with her husband and teen daughter (Karina Hin), Julia has more than a curiosity as she questions her father-in-law (Michel Duchaussoy) and Bertrand's grandmother (Gisele Casadesus).
As co-written by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the titular story is effectively interwoven with Julia's search. At 10 years of age, Sarah (Poutrel) isolated her little brother in a bedroom cupboard (read closet) as the authorities rounded up herself and her parents. A traumatic time for Sarah (later played by Mayance) leads to an adoption by strangers (Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot).
As The Skeleton Key churned in its depiction of Gothic horror with "hoo-doo," here there seems to be better cohesion as there are parallels of personal struggles in both time frames. As the main narrative is bookended with potboiler elements, there's reason to be consistently drawn to each one because of polished production values (smoothness, especially in lensing and scene segueing) and vibrant acting.
An intimate feel is abetted with filmmaking that doesn't prod one period on the other. It helps that Scott-Thomas (solid in Nowhere Boy and better in I've Loved You So Long) seems like a natural for a role which calls for an unrelenting emotional presence (including unexpected personal issues) which goes beyond the call of her professional duty. She's balanced wonderfully by Maynance and Poutrel, the latter performing sharply in arguably the film's most disturbing sequence.
This union of the past (including escaping from it) and its unlocking may detach some because of its subject matter. Yet, Sarah's Key opens ups with a certain grace and distinctive, edgy vitality, not so much as a compelling departure as in dramatic (heart-of-the-matter) returns never closeted by its tenacious, visceral center.