Intertwining stories don’t mesh in Sarah’s Key
There are at least two stories in Sarah’s Key, one set mostly during World War II and the other mostly in the present. The present-day story entails an investigation into the one from the past, but that interrelationship produces some rather odd imbalances, emotionally and thematically.
Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film version of the best-selling novel by Tatiana de Rosnay makes smooth work of the back-and-forth between past and present in the overall narrative, and an excellent cast, including bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas and the French stalwarts Niels Arestrup and Michel Duchaussoy, brings special gravitas to the various proceedings (it’s a French production, with some scenes in English).
The story from the past is the one that packs the truly dramatic wallop. Sarah is a young girl whose family is among the Parisian Jews swept up in a notorious deportation raid by the French police on July 16, 1942, during the German occupation of World War II. The key of the title relates in turn to the fate of little Sarah’s younger brother, whom she sends into hiding on the day of the raid.
In the present-day scenes, Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas) is a Paris-based American journalist who first glimpses the story of Sarah’s family, the Starzynskis, via some discoveries about the history of an apartment now owned by her French in-laws, the Tezacs. She is also undergoing a personal crisis—she is “miraculously” pregnant at age 44 and her workaholic husband is not at all happy about it.
Scott Thomas is smartly understated through all of that. Little Mélusine Mayance is superb as the Sarah of 1942, and Aidan Quinn is very good as a key character arriving late in the action.
But even with the instructive views on facing truths of the past, the earnest domestic drama of Julia’s story seems very oddly mismatched alongside the enormities of Sarah’s story.