Kudos to Gilles Paquet-Brenner for attempting to enchant life into the words of De Rosnay’s Elle s’appelait Sarah, one can imagine that this would not have been the easiest of challenges due to the subject matter of the novel. A harrowing story of a young Jewish girl being forced into a Nazi concentration camp, trying to escape to free her younger brother is never easy viewing and Brenner knows that all too well. In fact his conditioned knowledge is what pulls the rug from beneath this film before it has time to silently creep up and floor you.
Sarah Starzynski is a young Jewish girl living in Paris, until one day French soldiers invade the privacy of her home and begin arresting her and her Mother. In a flash of maternal instinct Sarah locks her younger Brother in the closet with food and water in a desperate attempt to divert the soldiers from his presence. However, when the Starzynski family are all divided up into concentration camps, Sarah becomes desperate to break out in order to free her Brother.
Now, Sarah’s Key isn’t a bad film, you won’t leave the theatre feeling like you’ve wasted money, but you won’t leave feeling satisfied and pleased. The film is remarkably emotionally restrained for a film about the Shoah. Brenner flirts often with melodrama, vicious imagery and the true horror of the camps and when he does this the film picks up not only emotional intensity, but weight. It feels like something that could stay with you for a while. However, Brenner seems to be too scared to push the envelope too hard and quickly retreats. The film ends without a feeling of anything significant happening and it’s such a travesty for a film with so much emotional poignancy behind it to leave you emotionally unscathed.
The emotional apex and ultimate question of the film is also revealed far too early on in the film meaning Brenner has to switch his tactics from historical mystery to an exploration of the affects of human grief. The pace drops so significantly that the film seems to drag the body of the first half along with it as it lumbers towards its destination, which it never quite reaches. There’s never the satisfying answer to the meditation of grief you’ve sat through and the film never quite floors you. You can feel it creeping up on you but by the time it comes to sucker punch you, the credits are rolling. However, in its favour the first half of the film is well handled. A couple of the most harrowing images and sequences provide the film with the majority of its emotional weight. Similarly, Kristen Scott Thomas as Julia continues to show her off as being a creditable acting force, her performance as the rational yet feisty Julia scooped her up the Cesar Award and deservedly so.
It’s just an absolute shame that a film about the Shoah was woven in with a really average, tedious and unnecessary story about an American journalist. The two films don’t really fit together but Brenner tried to force the jigsaw pieces together and the result is a passable, yet uncomfortable fit.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, Jay Crosbie (August ’11)
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