Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah)
It was hardly surprising to find that another film she starred in offered her just that, a strong leading role, a powerful emotive performance, and it also had an excellent script and a powerful story at its core that at times is shocking, revealing a story to me that I had never heard of before.
However the story isn't simply told from her point of view, in 2009 a journalist is writing a piece about the Jews interned and deported by the French, and as she visits the flat that her husband is renovating for them she discovers that it is the flat of the Strazynski family, the family of Sarah Strazynski, and as the journalist's investigation continues she comes closer and closer to Sarah's story.
The first thing that you notice about Sarah's Key that the film mixes English and French throughout, something you just wouldn't see in a non-European film, and indeed even then there aren't many films that mix the two languages. It's a natural split for the journalist Julia Jarmond who is an American living in France for some time, a bit like Kristen Scott Thomas herself, and it's a storytelling foil that it would seem Tatiana De Rosnay, the author of the novel Sarah's Key, used deliberately in order to help tell a dark period in the story of her own country's past.
The story also moves between France and America, and between the English speaking offices of the publication she works for and the outside city of Paris. So it never feels forced in order to try and gain an audience from both countries as some might think, instead it flows well with the story telling and the characters and fits just perfectly, even with the character switching between the languages mid sentence. In fact once the film was going I never thought about it after the first time I noticed it.
The early section of the film throws us straight into the story of Sarah and sets up the tense dramatic core of the story, one that is shocking in many ways, not least for the reveal of the story of the treatment of Jewish people during the mass internments and deportation to Nazi camps, but also for the feelings that the film brings to the audience through the eyes of Sarah as she does what she thinks is best and hides her brother. It's a shocking moment because you begin to think what could happen to these children.
The film does do a good job of keeping the storyline concentrated on Sarah, her relationships, her feelings and the way she interprets and relates to the events. It really does bring home the emotional side of the story by grounding the film with the young girl instead of concentrating on the grander scale of the events. It doesn't present the events with facts and figures, instead we get to see it through the eyes of the reporter discovering the events for herself and focussing on the personal story of this one girl, presenting a very personal and human face to the story for us to relate to and not brush off as another emotional wartime drama.
Even during the shocking scenes in the velodrome, scenes which could so easily have been much harder and visually far too raw, the film holds them to just a few key moments which manage to portray the enormity of what was happening and how shocking they were without going too far and overpowering the actual story of the film. This was done in scenes such as the toilet facilities; the lack of food and water; the cramped and dirty conditions; the suicide, and in a scene that takes us to the modern day, the interview with someone who lived across from the velodrome describing the need to close the windows in the house.
The duality of the story lines is an attractive feature of the film and is well edited and timed, we move back and forth between the time lines of Sarah's journey and the journey of Julia when it feels right, turning to her when the modern story calls for it and never feeling as though it butts in unnecessarily or that we need to return to Sarah's story and are being distracted by Julia's. It feels perfectly balanced and flows well, just as the move between languages.
Another great aspect of the story is how it doesn't feel over manipulative. So many films that demand an emotional response turn to common tricks to make the audience feel something. With Sarah's Key the score does lift in a few places leading you to a big moment but I liked the way it did this, it doesn't feel like manipulation of your emotions rather than building the tension through the layers of the film. For the rest of the film it doesn't feel like I was being forced to feel something and the feelings come to you through the characters and the story. You can see that by how much the film doesn't show you, for there is a lot more that the film could spell out in front of the camera to make you feel more, and yet it holds it away and lets your own mind do the work which works far better in any film and story.
Performance wise for anyone who knows me, or was paying attention at the start of the review, you'll know instantly that I'm going to mention the fantastic Kristen Scott Thomas who is, as always, utterly compelling. She captures your attention almost immediately and holds onto it throughout. She's perfectly natural in her performance and never seems as though she's acting from the smallest of looks to the most emotive of scenes. I always get so drawn to her characters never thinking for a second that she's an actress playing a part and always believing in her. Yes, I am a huge fan, and I just think her performances have been getting better and better.
The girl who plays the young Sarah is fantastic; Mélusine Mayance doesn't seem like the average child performer and gives an emotionally strong performance well above her years. Some of the moments that she has to portray are rather intense to watch, increased by the fact that she is so young, and it's amazing to believe that she can give such performances at her age.
It was a surprise to see Aidan Quinn appear later on in the film. I've got an image in my head of how this actor is but here he totally went against that preconception and for all the right reasons. I really took to the character and he fits in well with the other excellent actors and performances around him, brief though his appearance is.
The story doesn't race off and manages to hold the audience back, building the tension and suspense, keeping a carefully considered pace through the film. What's more is that the story of Sarah's journey doesn't end where you might expect, it continues on and follows the affect they have on Sarah through to her adult life, and more importantly the affect it has on those people around her and those in the future.
It's clever the way the film holds back when the story follows Sarah as she grows up. We never really hear much from her and her motives are never explained, but the events and her quiet moments with the reflective voice-over take us to a similar thoughtful place. I found myself pondering what effect the events would have on a person and empathizing with her as much as could be possible.
I really loved how the story continued on and followed her into her later years, bringing the future and the past stories together in the modern day with the journalist at the centre. It's a surprise the way the story turns and plays out, and it provides for an excellent ending to the film, and not one you might have expected.
The picture is very good on Blu-ray and has quite a different style and feel between the two time lines. The picture carries some very well composed shots and lovely framing and lighting which gives a great natural look to the film thanks to director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and cinematographer Pascal Ridao. The actors all look great on screen which is filled with beautifully emotive faces and some very real ones too, not a line-up of Hollywood beauty.
5.1 DTS-HD Master, 2.0 Stereo LPCM
The 5.1 audio track is as subtle as the film is at times and other times strikes a strong chord playing through all the speakers and moving around the room. From the opening we hear the solid knocking on the door announcing itself loudly from the rear. From here it pulls back but throughout the film it returns to use the directional sound particularly during the scenes during the war, which is surprising for such a dramatic film.
This is an excellent making of that provides access to so much behind the scenes that you normally don't see. With an hour devoted to it, we hear everything from the publication of the book through to actors in Kristen's trailer discussing a scene and bouncing lines off of each other, through to interviewing the caterers and finding out why it is necessary to bring catering with the production. This is one of the better behind the scene production extras I've seen and provides so much for fans of extras and behind the scenes.
The story for Sarah's Key is an emotionally strong one delivered superbly well with an excellent considered pace that is not just in the writing but all through the direction, editing and performances. The film keeps the focus on the characters involved, not getting distracted by the larger historical aspects of the story, and is far better for it.
The story is excellent and a dramatic one. I really enjoyed the way it delivered Sarah's story and continued onto her later years, and how it moved back and forth between the modern and past story lines, merging in the modern day and bringing a satisfying conclusion to the past and a new beginning to the current.
There are excellent performances from throughout the cast, and both Kristen Scott Thomas and Mélusine Mayance are responsible for pulling you closer to the film than anything else.
Superbly written, directed and performed, and looking fantastic on Blu-ray. Sarah's Key is a wonderful film that I'd highly recommend.