As I sat down to watch "Sarah's Key" I admittedly couldn't help but think to myself, "Oh great, another Holocaust movie." The Holocaust is undoubtedly one of the most significant events of all time and has provided inspiration for numerous great films. I've just seen so many Holocaust-related movies over the years that the subject matter is beginning to become too familiar. My reservations toward "Sarah's Key" quickly dwindled, however, as the film commenced. This is a unique and special picture about a lesser-known fraction of the Holocaust's history. While it may not receive as much recognition as the fiercely overrated Oscar-nominee, "The Reader," audiences will have a much more profound experience at this near masterwork.
"Sarah's Key" follows the stories of two different women separated by roughly 70 years. One tale takes place in present day where a journalist named Julia, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, attempts to paste together what happened to a little French-Jewish girl named Sarah during the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup in 1942. The other story follows the 10-year-old Sarah, played by Mélusine Mayance, who locks her younger brother in a closet to hide him from French officers. Sarah is arrested along with her father and mother though, leaving her brother behind.
They're eventually transported to the Beaune-la Rolande camp where Sarah is separated from her parents. Her father is deported to Auschwitz and her mother will soon follow. Throughout this horrific ordeal, Sarah has managed to hold onto the key to the closet. Although it seems hopeless, she is determined to escape from the camp and free her brother.
What surprised me about "Sarah's Key" was the humanity of many of the supporting characters. In one of the movie's most tense instances, Sarah's mother attempts to give her food through a fence and they are caught by a guard. You'd expect this guard to ruthlessly punish Sarah and her mother. Yet, he lets Sarah go with an apple.
Another deep relationship Sarah builds is with a married couple she encounters after escaping from the camp. They both decide to help Sarah get back home, knowing the consequences if they are caught helping a Jew. The Holocaust was a confusing time in which many civilians had little choice but to go along with the authorities and look out for themselves. In the midst of all the chaos though, "Sarah's Key" demonstrates that there were some people who were brave enough to do what was right.
The pivotal performance comes from Mélusine Mayance as Sarah. Mayance gives one of the most brutally heartbreaking performances I've ever seen from a young actress, demonstrating the strength and stature most actresses don't achieve until adolescence. If "Sarah's Key" can find an audience, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mayance joined the ranks of Anna Paquin and Tatum O'Neal as one of the youngest performances to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Mayance's scenes are so powerful that they often outshine the plot involving Kristin Scott Thomas as Julia. In due course, this subplot comes off as a bit weaker than the flashback sequences. But Julia's story ultimately plays a crucial role and it's hard to imagine the film without it by the end. The film scene between Julia and a relative of Sarah's is an especially superb moment.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner adapted the film from the historical fiction novel by Tatiana De Rosnay. Paquet-Brenner has painted a mesmerizing picture with the appropriately hectic cinematography from Rascal Ridao and a touching musical score by Max Richter. It will be easy for "Sarah's Key" to get lost in the shuffle of countless big budget summer blockbusters. I can only hope people will take the time to seek it out and remember it at the end of the year. This is simply one of the year's finest.