Review: 'Sarah's Key'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

The genealogy craze of the last several years reflects a hunger to put our lives in a greater context and, perhaps, to get a bit of reflected glow from our ancestors. Your own drama getting a bit dull? The trials of your forebears can provide past-life pride in the endurance of the family line. The French drama "Sarah's Key" gives genealogy a twist as a modern-day woman obsessively plumbs the past of a family not her own, eventually turning up a descendant who has forgotten never to forget.

Indeed, the Holocaust plays a part in "Sarah's Key," adapted by writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and co-screenwriter Serge Joncour from Tatiana de Rosnay's novel. Everyone's favorite bilingual star Kristin Scott Thomas plays journalist Julia Jarmond, assigned by her magazine to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv' Roundup. An enduring national shame, the Vel' d'Hiv' Roundup found the French police arresting 13,000 Jews in Paris, holding them in a velodrome (under conditions likened to the fallout of Hurricane Katrina), then transporting them to an internment camp before their final destination of Auschwitz.

Coincidentally, the apartment Julia and her husband have inherited from his family once belonged to a Jewish family displaced during the roundup. Fearing the worst, Julia begins investigating personal histories: what became of the Jewish family and what role her own family may have played.

Julia's investigation unlocks a storyline that plays out in flashbacks, that of 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance) and her family. During the roundup, Sarah tries to protect her brother by locking him in a secret compartment (hence "Sarah's Key"). By the time she realizes she may have done more harm than good, it's too late.

Strong work from Mayance and Thomas keeps "Sarah's Key" from rusting amid the sometime sogginess of the script. Mayance captures Sarah's guilelessness, guilt and terror, while Thomas evokes the infiltration of the past into Julia's present, a Pandora's Box of truth she couldn't close if she wanted to. Long after her story is filed, Julia can't let it go, and she realizes that if she is to exorcise Sarah's ghost, she will have to track down her descendants and make sure the past meets up with the present for all concerned. This path eventually leads Julia to a man (Aidan Quinn) who realizes his ancestry has been something of a lie.

The truth shall set you free, so they say, and "Sarah's Key" locates calm after the storm of Julia's obsession. Her marriage has been rattled, not only by her historical search, but by an unexpected turn in her own relationship. "Sarah's Key" isn't about the past or the present but the intersection of the two in legacy, what Julia calls "the memory of who we were, and the hope of what we become."

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust. 1 hour, 50 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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