Sarah's Key opens with a shot of a 10-year-old girl, seen from the point of view of her younger brother, as they tickle each other and play and laugh. This is the last time we will see Sarah (played as a child by Melusine Mayance) smile, even though we will follow her story into adulthood. The setting is Paris in July 1942, when the Vichy government, in collaboration with Hitler's forces, went door-to-door rounding up Jews and shipping them off to German concentration camps. When there is a knock at Sarah's door, and a policeman orders everyone in the house to pack enough clothing for three days and vacate the premises, the girl hides her brother in a secret closet in their bedroom wall and locks him in, promising to return for him soon. She and her parents are shepherded along with thousands of others into a stadium, where they are told to sit and wait. Sarah clutches the key to the closet door in her hand, trying to figure out a way to get back home and free her brother. The key becomes a symbol for a mission that becomes increasingly unlikely - if not outright impossible - to complete.
But Sarah refuses to give up hope. Sarah's Key, which has been adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay's novel with restraint and respect by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, only spends roughly a third of its time in the past. Most of the film takes place in 2009 Paris, where a journalist named Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a quietly eloquent performance) is researching a story about the 1942 roundup while going about her daily life - preparing to move into a new home, deciding whether to tell her husband she's pregnant, visiting with her aged but still spunky in-laws. Initially, the modern setting feels like an intrusion on the much more dramatic and harrowing story involving Sarah.
Gradually, though, the two plotlines begin to meld in surprising (if occasionally contrived) ways. Sarah's story peaks early in the film, but her experiences have an unexpected impact on Julia's life. The life of a woman she never knew suddenly becomes critically important: The past shapes Julia's present in life-changing ways. Unlike most films about the Holocaust, which has provided artists with an infinite array of heartrending stories and tragedies, Sarah's Key doesn't spend much time recounting the horrors that Jews suffered during World War II. There aren't even any scenes set in Germany. Instead, the movie uses Julia as a vehicle to represent France and in a way, all of us - as the journalist uncovers a slice of forgotten history that defies credibility and literally changes the way she views the world around her. In an eloquent, moving manner, Sarah's Key argues that we are all products of the past regardless of whether we are aware of it and that understanding our roots, no matter how painful the process, is preferable to remaining oblivious. Only with knowledge can we truly be at peace with who we are - and lead the best possible life.
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot, Aidan Quinn.
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner.
Screenwriters: Serge Joncour, Gilles Pacquet-Brenner. Based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay.
Producer: Stephane Marsil.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 102 minutes. In English, French and Yiddish with English subtitles. Disturbing imagery, brief violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Cinemax.