Sarah's Key

Kristin Scott Thomas continues her creative exile on Gallic soil

Is it the dearth of main roles for women that has prompted Kristin Scott Thomas’ defection from the world of English-language cinema to the greener pastures of France?

Judging from her recent work in the French language – Tell No One, I’ve Loved You For So Long and her most recent film, Sarah’s Key, for example – it would very much appear so.

The lack of space at the heart of a film's narrative for an actor of her age in British or American cinema is sadly all too evident. So thanks to the French then for delivering a film about family and history with a middle-aged woman as its central protagonist.

As well as that, there isn't even the merest suggestion of giant robot fisticuffs or super-powered revenge: a refreshingly rare thing in our cinemas during the summer months.

Based on the bestselling novel Elle s'appelait Sarah by Tatiana de Rosnay, and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (a relatively unknown director outside of France) Sarah’s Key tells two stories at once. It is in the linking of the two where the mystery lies.

The first is the about the round-up of the Parisian Jews in June 1942 (known as the Vel’ D’hiv Roundup), not by the Nazis but by the collaborating French authorities, a matter which is still very much an open wound for the French to this day.

As her family are taken away, young Sarah hides her brother in a nearby cupboard, thinking that he can be saved later. She locks the door and takes the key. It’s not until much later that she realises that getting back to him isn’t going to be as easy as she thought. She will have to escape from the camp her and her family have been sent to for a start, and then make her way back through the open countryside to Paris.

The second story involves Scott Thomas's character, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who begins to investigate where her husband's family come from and what dark secrets lurk in their past.

Truth be told, the Vel’ D’hiv backdrop to the story – while illuminating a part of the history of the Second World War that many will not have heard of – is merely that: backdrop. For a more comprehensive examination of what occurred in Vichy France at the time, the recent Jean Reno starring The Round-Up might be the place to go.

In this instance the historical fact, no matter how nobly intended it’s inclusion is and how heart-rendingly it is recreated, is merely a device for kicking off the plot. Ultimately it has no great relevance on the present day part of the film, other than to comment on the fact that it was a bad thing.

Despite this, Sarah's Key delivers a firm and mostly unromantic view of the past, and director Paquet-Brenner demonstrates the ability to walk the fine like between drama and melodrama.

Not that Sarah's Key is without it’s flaws, however: while it has pared down the well plotted but frankly average source novel to barer bones, some business – such as Jarmond's dilemma when she finds out that she is pregnant again – still seem tacked on and superfluous to the main story, perhaps even distracting.

Nonetheless, this is an ultimately rewarding, solidly made, emotive film that showcases once again that strong, complex roles are out there for actresses, depending, of course, on their bilingual abilities.

Sarah's Key runs in Queen's Film Theatre until August 18.

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