An American journalist in contemporary Paris discovers a personal connection to the Vichy regime’s infamous July 16, 1942 roundup and imprisonment of Parisian Jews in “Sarah’s Key,” a mostly faithful adaptation of Tatiana de Rosnay’s international bestseller, from French helmer Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Despite the somewhat stilted “big moments” dramatic style of the period story and the didactics of the contempo frame, the polished-looking Weinstein Co. pickup should appeal to upscale arthouse audiences, as well as anyone who enjoyed the book. French release through UGC begins Oct. 13.
Before this year, the dark part of French WWII history known as the Vel d’Hiv round up was not much dramatized, and as “Sarah’s Key” makes clear, not many people know the details. In France, however, helmer Roselyne Bosch’s “The Round Up” (forthcoming Stateside from Menemsha Films), covering some of the same territory, was a hit release in the spring, pulling in nearly 3,000,000 admissions.
Like the novel, the film alternates between two gradually intertwining stories, both driven by feelings of guilt. In the first, Sarah Starzynski (a fiercely anguished Melusine Mayance), a 10-year-old Jewish girl, tries to save her younger brother by locking him in a secret cupboard just before French police herd her, along with her parents and some 13,000 others, into the Velodrome cycling stadium. In the second tale, journalist Julia Jarmond (the bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas, alternating French with a realistic American accent) learns that her in-laws benefited from the Starzynski’s deportation by acquiring the very apartment that her architect husband (Frederic Pierrot) is currently remodeling.
Viewed through Sarah’s eyes, Paquet-Brenner’s harrowing rendering of the Starzynski’s three days trapped in the stifling, unsanitary confines of the Velodrome and their traumatic separation at the Beaune-la-Roland transit camp is moving and only a little maudlin. Julia’s research for a story about the deportations fills in the statistics.
Obsessed with her brother’s fate, Sarah escapes from the camp, winding up on the doorstep of a sympathetic farming couple (Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot, both excellent) that take her post-haste to Paris. Meanwhile, Julia’s detective work traces the rest of Sarah’s story.
In a departure from the novel, the screenplay, penned by Serge Joncour and Paquet-Brenner, develops the character of Sarah (Charlotte Poutrel) as an adult. One of the pic’s most quietly poignant scenes takes place between Sarah’s middle-aged son (a fine Aidan Quinn) and her husband (George Birt).
Working in a classical style and genre that rep a far cry from his previous work (“Pretty Things,” “Gomez and Tavares, “UV”), Pacquet-Brenner’s direction is always respectful if never entirely subtle. Showing how some gentiles averted their eyes from the wrong done to the Jews, while others became reluctant heroes, he takes a realistically complex approach to history rather than reducing it to good vs. evil.
Comprising prestige names and unknowns, the ensemble cast acquits itself well. Craft highlights include evocative period production design by Francoise Dupertuis and rich lensing by Pascal Ridao on a Red One camera.