The title is the most authentically French thing about “Suite francaise,” a fusty but enjoyably old-fashioned WWII soap that, notwithstanding its Gallic locale, is otherwise characterized by a distinctly British brand of plumminess. Based on the bestselling unfinished novel by Irene Nemirovsky, this lightly perfumed tale of the tentative romance between a married Frenchwoman and an urbane Nazi soldier during the 1940 German occupation covers no new ground historically or stylistically, and is hampered by gauche narration that undermines the expressive delicacy of Michelle Williams’s headlining performance. Still, attractive mounting and casting — with the inspired choice of Matthias Schoenaerts as Williams’s co-lead paying off handsomely — could see this Weinstein Co. property make moderately “Suite” music in limited release.
In Blighty, where Entertainment One releases the pic on March 13, “Suite francaise” is likely to entice the older audience that failed to turn out for the comparable but superior wartime weepie “Testament of Youth” earlier this year. That’s in part thanks to name actors — particularly the redoubtable Kristin Scott Thomas, a consistent arthouse draw in her homeland — and the relatively recent popularity of Nemirovsky’s work, the English translation of which hit shelves in 2006. The book, of course, is something of a story in itself. Written during the war prior to the author’s death in Auschwitz, only to be discovered by her daughter 65 years later, it’s a fictional narrative — planned as a five-part literary suite, though only two were completed — that nonetheless has a diary-like ring of in-the-moment authenticity.
Adapting this unrevised, imperfectly shaped text was always going to be a challenge, so director Saul Dibb (helming his first feature since 2008’s similarly lush Keira Knightley starrer “The Duchess”) and co-writer Matt Charman have sensibly concentrated their attention on the second of the book’s self-contained sections, following its restrained but satisfyingly complete romantic arc. Other scripting decisions, however, are less shrewd: A rushed, logic-defying amendment to Nemirovsky’s bittersweet climax amps up the action in a manner that implies a degree of studio focus-grouping. More problematic still is the intrusive, wholly dispensable first-person voiceover by Williams’s protagonist, which succeeds only in articulating emotions the actress is perfectly capable of conveying in non-verbal fashion. Like a longer “Brief Encounter,” the love affair under examination is powerful for its necessarily tacit exchanges of feeling. The same can’t be said for the film: “Hardly a word of our true feelings had been spoken,” intones Williams with amusingly ironic redundancy.
Clumsy storytelling decisions, however, can’t entirely get in the way of a good story, and it’s when “Suite francaise” focuses on the simplest human dynamics of its yarn that it forges a sincere emotional connection. A hurriedly edited introduction barely sketches in the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk before skipping — with an odd “one week later” title card — to the sleepy central French village of Bussy, where the locals await the German intruders with grim-faced stoicism. “If you want to see what people are made of, you start a war,” tuts haughty, upper-class Madame Angellier (Scott Thomas, elegantly domineering as ever), as she waits out the occupation with her soft-spoken daughter-in-law, Lucile (Williams). Both women are in a state of limbo pending the return of Lucile’s husband from battle, though it emerges that their marriage is one chiefly of convenience.
Starved for gentle human contact, Lucile is silently less aggrieved than Madame when German soldiers are allocated as lodgers to all suitable households. It is her further good fortune that their uninvited guest, Lt. Bruno van Falk (Schoenaerts), happens to be not just the nicest Nazi in town, but perhaps in screen history. A courteous, compassionate gentleman with profound reservations about the political regime he’s obliged to serve and a neat sideline in piano composition, his chemistry with his lonely hostess is awkwardly immediate. As they shyly bond over shared interests and the eponymous suite — its lilting, looping melody provided by Alexandre Desplat, no less — that he’s in the process of creating, outside parties grow suspicious of their involvement. Meanwhile, in a subplot that gradually braids itself with the core relationship, a destitute farming couple (played by Sam Riley and an excellent Ruth Wilson) are violently harrassed by their own Nazi boarder, and turn to Lucile and Bruno as intermediaries.
The ensuing blend of romance and suspense is easy to imagine as a studio film from the wartime era, and Dibb is smart enough to play on that familiar, faintly mildewed charm. That extends to the ungainly uncertainty (typical for this genre) of how to vocally perform English-language, Continental-set drama: The actors playing French natives largely opt for cut-glass English tones, while mildly Germanic accents prevail on the other side. The combined effect is akin to a particularly straight-faced episode of the beloved BBC sitcom “‘Allo! ‘Allo!,” though most viewers’ ears will adjust to the inconsistency soon enough.
Whatever its occasional formal missteps, then, “Suite francaise” is bracingly unafraid of its own sentimentality. The leads play things ingenuously straight, summoning genuine heat in the characters’ fleeting moments of physical interlocking. Williams, among the most intelligently intuitive actresses of her generation, imbues Lucile with a fragile, thoughtful reserve that never comes off as wan. She’s ideally matched by rising Belgian star Schoenaerts, who continues to demonstrate his versatility with each of his English-language assignments: He’s as dashingly refined here as he was viscerally brooding in his breakout roles in “Rust and Bone” and “Bullhead.” Channeling something of the young Fredric March in his graceful demeanor and delivery, he maps out Bruno’s internal conflicts with poignant economy.
Furthermore, both stars could hardly be more exquisitely presented, thanks to first-rate contributions from costume designer Michael O’Connor (a master of character-serving fabric selection, even when toning down the lavish spectacle of his Oscar-winning work on “The Duchess”) and, particularly, hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore. Technically, the pic is a sharp-looking affair all around, even if the lacquered lensing by Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”) takes few chances beyond a bit of handheld agitation during high-tension sequences. And in a story where music serves an integral narrative function, Rael Jones’s pretty, heavily worked score can justify its degree of ornamentation — even if it’s Desplat’s aforementioned contribution that auds will remember.