By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin July 22, 2011 at 4:27AM
If there is any justice this summer that’s not being meted out by a comic-book superhero, discerning moviegoers will find their way to Sarah’s Key, the moving adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s international best-seller. It’s one of the year’s best films. Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American-born journalist who lives in France with her husband and daughter. While researching an article about the fate of French Jews during World War Two, she stumbles onto an incredible story involving a little girl named Sarah (played by newcomer Mélusine Mayance) who is separated from her family. An unexpected connection with Sarah turns Scott Thomas’ journalistic enterprise into a personal odyssey.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner adapted the novel, in collaboration with Serge Joncour, and made a crucial decision not to—
—sentimentalize the material. It’s precisely because the parallel stories—modern-day and wartime—unfold in straightforward, even understated, fashion that the movie works so well. It’s left to us in the audience to respond in our own way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one whose emotions will be stirred.
I don’t suppose storytellers will ever run out of source material from World War Two, nor will there come a time when these tales won’t be relevant. The filmmakers have apparently made some changes to De Rosnay’s book, but the author has gone on record praising their adaptation.
Kristen Scott Thomas is always worth watching, and does a fine job portraying a character whose struggles are mostly internal. Young Mélusine Mayance has an expressive face and makes it easy for us to relate to a child who suffers terrible upheavals but finds the courage to endure. Niels Astrup, who was so impressive as a gangster in A Prophet/Un Prophète last year, is excellent as a compassionate farmer who plays a key role in Sarah’s survival. And Aidan Quinn turns up in the final portion of the story, bringing his characteristic openness to a small but crucial part.
Having spent two years on The New York Times best-seller list, I hope the screen version of Sarah’s Key wins the audience it deserves. There should be a place for compelling, adult drama—even in the summertime.