Sunday, 7 August 2011

'Sarah's Key' review:

A shrewd example of counter-programming, French holocaust movie 'Sarah's Key' has been unleashed on a UK box office with little else to offer a mature audience. Right now most multiplexes are screening the last entry in the 'Harry Potter' series, the third 'Transformers' movie and the more recent releases of 'Cars 2', 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' and 'Captain America'. It's a time of year when Hollywood, as far away from either end of award season as it's possible to be, caters only for teenagers and families, with the elderly ignored most of all. Yet, based on an acclaimed novel, set during the Second World War and starring Kristen Scott-Thomas, 'Sarah's Key' is seemingly purpose built for those with no interest in wizards, penguins and superheroes.

Scott-Thomas plays Julia, an American investigative journalist living in present day Paris who is researching a story on Vel' d'Hiv Roundup - a shameful event in French history which saw over 13,000 Parisian Jews arrested by local police and eventually condemned to Nazi concentration camps - when she discovers her new apartment in the Marais once belonged the family of a 10 year-old Jewish girl named Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) of whom there are no records. Her family perished in the camps, but Sarah seems to have disappeared soon after her transfer to the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. As Julia tries to uncover the past, chasing leads around the globe and talking to distant relatives, we are also shown flashbacks of Sarah's traumatic young life and of a particularly tragic event which relates to the titular key.

It's all admirable enough, with the worthy intention of reminding the French people of this horrendous episode and keeping the memory of those killed alive, yet it's a tale that is blandly told. The film lacks anything like flair for the cinematic, with the 2009 sections of the film especially boring as Julia contends with the guilt of owning Sarah's apartment, and the whole thing feels like an overlong TV movie. The scenes which see Julia working at her magazine office are full of clumsy expository lessons in history, whilst the actors playing her young colleagues don't convince as journalists - reduced as they are to representing the ignorance of youth and those of us who need educating by the film.

In the end the tear-jerking, emotional element of the film (and it certainly has one) has much more to do with history than filmmaking as we are forced to imagine some of the pain people really went through in living memory - with children ripped from the arms of mothers, shrieking their goodbyes amidst a cacophony of wailing. The fate of Sarah's young brother is also hard to stomach. But none of this has an ounce to do with Gilles Paquet-Brenner's tepid direction or Scott-Thomas' earnest, mournful portrayal of Julia. English-speaking sections are especially poor with cliche dialogue ("my whole life has been a lie!") and little-known actors out of their depth, as the producers desperately try to ensure the film has a marketing future outside of France (it's got one of those cheeky trailers that pretends it isn't a foreign language film).

Aforementioned middle-class elderly audiences, so neglected by the summer blockbuster scene, will find the earnest, historically-conscious 'Sarah's Key' a welcome and emotionally affecting trip to the pictures. And that's a good thing, make no mistake. But those less allergic to frivolous fun will understand that there is much more interesting and even (in some cases) intellectually nourishing fare at the multiplex right now for anyone prepared to use their imagination. I'd never usually direct people from the arthouse and into the Odeon, but it's summer and, like it or not, that's where it's happening.

'Sarah's Key' is out now in the UK and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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