Sarah’s Key is set in 1942 occupied France. At the centre of Sarah’s Key is a little-known episode in Holocaust history – the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of Jews in Paris. Based on a novel by Tatiana de Rosnay – with one small but crucial change that adds greater poignancy and depth – it follows two stories: that of 10-year-old Sarah and her family as they’re forced from their home, and a contemporary American journalist’s research for an article about the event. Julia, the journalist, has moved into a new home with her husband and there discovers something that sets her on to Sarah’s trail.
The interwoven stories create a sense of how the past always leaves a residue and continues to have repercussions in the present. It comes through in the rich subtext, and in unforced parallels and resonance linking Sarah and Julia. There’s nothing pat or mawkish about this; it’s all beautifully restrained. In the end, it’s a film about the preciousness of life. It also adds a new dimension to the concept of survivor guilt.
As Julia, Kristin Scott Thomas gives another fine, natural performance, traversing accents and languages with ease, leading us through the mystery, and showing, with great subtlety, its effect on her character. Mélusine Mayance as Sarah is entirely professional and convincing in her emotional range, and Niels Arestrup astonishes with a role diametrically opposite to his chilling criminal boss in A Prophet.
Gilles Paquet-Brenner is a young director with an erratic reputation, but there’s nothing to suggest that here. He confidently moves between stories with neither trickery nor leaden feet, trusting that their narrative drive makes anything other than a simple cut unnecessary. He shoots Julia’s story with a calm, reflective rhythm and look; Sarah’s up close. In fact, it’s so intense sometimes that one key scene – the separation of children and parents – could well eclipse Sophie’s Choice in its evocation of chaotic, disorienting panic.