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Haunting 'Sarah's Key' focuses on post-Holocaust guilt

French film examines how the horrors of war can have lasting impact on both victims and those who profited from that victimization.
/ Source: Reuters

You'd be forgiven if you think that you've seen just about every possible permutation of a holocaust-themed film. You might even be fed up with those movies altogether after sitting through the likes of Roberto Benigni's icky Oscar-winning debacle "Life Is Beautiful" or the treacly and gruesome "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."

But the French import "Sarah's Key" threw me for a loop. Yes, it focuses on an incident of World War II-era anti-Semitism, but it also looks at how the horrors of war can have lasting impact on both victims and those who profited from that victimization.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who's been showing off her perfect French on-screen pretty much since her movie debut in Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon," stars as Julia, a globe-trotting journalist who's in the process of renovating the Paris apartment that her husband's family has owned for decades.

While researching a story about the relatively little-known Vel' d'Hiv incident of 1942 -- in which French Jews were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps not by the Nazis but by the French authorities -- Julia comes to realize that her in-laws took possession of the apartment only because its previous tenants were a Jewish family swept up in those 1942 arrests.

Julia's search for that family brings her -- and us -- to the tale of young Sarah (Molusine Mayance), from her ill-fated attempt to hide her brother from the police to her escape from a children's camp to her adult efforts to bury her past. And while "Sarah's Key" doesn't attempt to equate Sarah's lifelong guilt with the shame of complicity felt by Julia's husband's family, the movie powerfully conveys that almost no one who lived in France during the war, no matter what side they took in the conflict, got out psychically unbruised.

Director and co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner, adapting a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, nails both the period sequences (besides the '40s, we see Sarah come of age in the decades that follow) and the modern stuff, particularly the scenes involving Julia's work as a journalist.

So many contemporary films treat reporters like they were characters in "His Girl Friday," so it's refreshing when someone understands things like computers and the fact that most print publications have just a handful of staffers who actually work in the office.

Scott Thomas, arguably the best British actress who managed never to be cast in the "Harry Potter" series, makes for a perfect audience surrogate -- the audience learns everything at the same time that Julia does, and the story unfolds in such a compelling way that we share her drive to find out how Sarah's life turned out.

There's a subplot about Julia's pregnancy that feels tacked-on for some cheap tears at the film's close, but that's about the only part of "Sarah's Key" that doesn't ring true. Otherwise, it's a compelling tale about a chapter of history that plenty of people would no doubt prefer we'd forget.