Kristin Scott Thomas is one of those actors who will always draw me in to see their films. I realise that Jeremy Clarkson gushes about her with ridiculous regularity on Top Gear but, nevertheless, I will always give Kristin Scott Thomas the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making movie-watching decisions. Tonight, I had the opportunity of an evening on my own in which I could indulge. I’d heard that Sarah’s Key was worth a look and so, knowing that KSK was in it, I went along. I’ve almost forgiven her for the trauma of The English Patient, after all. Almost.
Sarah’s Key knocked me for six. I was expecting an emotional roller coaster of a film, and I’m always more than ready to give in to that, but Sarah’s Key went that little bit further. I soon gave up with wiping the eyes. Like most people around me, towards the end, there was nothing for it but to let the feelings flow. At the end, I looked as if I’d peeled a dozen onions with my eyelids. But I wasn’t the only one.
The key in question is the key that the young Sarah used to lock her little brother away when the men in uniforms banged on the door of their Parisian apartment back in 1942. Sarah Starzynski and her family are Jews and the men who marched Sarah and her family off to a holding pen and then to camp are French. That is the controversy of Sarah’s Key. This nightmare that was endured by French Jews was inflicted by fellow Frenchmen. That collaboration meant that Sarah’s little brother promised to wait quietly in the closet, with just a little water, until his sister returned to rescue him.
Sarah and her parents, along with thousands of others, are taken to the velodrome, Vel d’Hiv, in July 1942. There they waited for days, with no water and no toilets. This, one must remember, is a true story and it is shown in its horror here. Not fully, because that would be unimaginable. Suicide was the only way out for some. The rest waited amongst the stench and waste for the next stage in their journey towards eradication and annihilation. For Sarah, alone, the next stage is a camp full of children – the parents and younger infants already removed and, one feels, slaughtered. Sarah escapes, desperate and obsessed by the key that she clutches. And so begins the story that leads to the journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) fifty years later.
The film presents the story of Sarah and Julia in a series of flashbacks, both stories focusing on the cupboard in the wall for which Sarah carries a key. Julia, newly pregnant, faces her own dilemma but, as she learns more about Sarah and uncovers members of Sarah’s family, Julia comes to believe in the sanctity of the life she carries. There are repercussions just as there are responsibilities in creating new life.
Sarah’s Key is not a perfect film. Inevitably, the emotions of the audience will rest on Sarah herself. The young actress Mélusine Mayance who plays Sarah as a child captures her perfectly – the fear, the determination and the despair. The story of her rescue by the couple who initially try to scare her away is key for me. This duelling of feelings, like that experienced in the camp by a French prison guard, demonstrates so clearly the choices that everyone had to make to survive. A side product of this, on occasion, was unimaginable courage.
The emotional pull of Sarah’s story is so strong that, inevitably, Julia’s story suffers. Whatever Julia goes through is nothing compared to the daily struggle for life faced by Sarah. Although there are some moments towards the end of the film that do manage it, as truth hits, it’s inevitable that it’s Sarah’s story that grips us. Nevertheless, such is the strength of Kristin Scott Thomas, she keeps us with her as she uncovers some of the truth about this shameful period in French history. Just as some of the young Paris journalists featured in the film are unaware of Vel d’Hiv, there are also family members of the victims who are unaware of what their parents and grandparents endured. Or of what took place in their own homes sixty years ago.
The story is not an easy one but through the mix of Sarah’s and Julia’s stories, the audience is given some little idea of what went on in the beautiful city of Paris during these dark years. I was riveted by this film, unable to look away. Without doubt, Sarah’s Key is one of the ‘best’ films I’ve seen in 2011 and it will stay in my mind for quite a while. If you’re able to see it, do. For sure, I want to see it again.