It’s harder to accept Sarah’s Key because it doesn’t manipulate, just delivering a grim reality to the screen. Tracking through three generations, beginning in 1942 with the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, the film swings between the modern and the gut-wrenching, Sarah’s Key never offering a grace period.
Squeezing the dramatic the historical fiction, the film follows a young girl, Sarah, as she is separated from all family, escaping an interment camp, and struggling to lead a normal life with a staggering burden. In the modern day, a reporter pieces together these lost events, hidden between the passing decades as she discovers her new apartment is linked.
Brought over from the French novel, Sarah’s Key filmed approached is weighted in the first half, the children stuffed away in execrable conditions, growing ill, and desperate for any escape. It doesn’t need the firm sense of character; the brutality and heartlessness of it all takes over. Still, Sarah (Melusine Mayance) is a driven fighter, holding a key that means everything for survival.
With her story complete, Julia’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) investigation takes hold, her problems seemingly a speck to what was portrayed in the past. She’s determined to see a pregnancy through despite a weary husband and likely complications, digging into family history that is more than just work. It becomes a determination for this story to be told, admirable without the raw power of the sickening material presented prior. Then again, not much could match events as despicable as those surrounding this piece.
Screen adaptations will always omit and change, Sarah’s Key unable to escape such an expectation, detrimental though to the finished product. Linking the eras and the people involved becomes indistinct, pieces, names, and places scattered throughout the wandering narrative flow. Julia’s interest beyond curiosity feels clumsy, and those final lines meant to bring an emotional high collapse.
Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner struggles when bridging time periods, the jumpy and static camerawork within the camps offering two widely varied looks at the drama, neither of which are pleasant experiences (for the better). Sarah’s Key simply feels deadened without the past to carry it, few dramatic lurches keeping it moving. It’s hard to balance competing poignant tragedy, more so when such brutality is presented.
Captured digitally via the Red One, the crucial error for Sarah’s Key are the miserable black levels. Nighttime scenes in the present day are butchered by light, even bright areas of the screen, robbing the images of their naturalness and purity. Amidst the interior of the camps, it becomes a distraction to the images, and that should be the last thing on anyone’s mind watching this.
The palette serves a multi-purpose, dim earth tones in the past, faded grays in the center, and dominating cools of the modern day. Each tells a different story on their own terms, all of them somewhat downtrodden. Saturation is held back and flesh tones always carry a limited hue as to remain oppressed but not sickly. All of these schemes work in tandem and to keep the twisting storytelling in check visually. There’s no confusion.
Detail will come and go, close-ups intricate, medium shots dull. Despite a lack of precision material, nothing comes off as overly digital or unnatural. It’s slick yet not carrying the visible weight digital can suffer from. Clarity is never impeded, the Red One keeping itself noise free for this production, giving the definition without any of the imperfections.
Exteriors, on the other hand, are resounding in their success. Shots of cities are spectacular in the breadth of their embellishments. Finely crafted bricks and architecture bring forward brilliant environments, even trees flawlessly defined. Digital never fails to amaze with these views, and Anchor Bay’s AVC encode won’t do anything to impede that.
It would figure that a movie in which there’s little interest in “being there” brings the listener right into the midst of concentration camps. Crowds of humanity are shuffled forward with panic and screaming captured in each channel. Dialogue is split between the speakers, and something as simple as someone knocking on a door will wrap around the rears.
Sarah’s Key considers all which is why it works with such force. Any sound effect that shouldn’t come from the center doesn’t, from passing cars to a train engine splitting the stereos. Street level ambiance is enormous, the general city sounds of sirens, wind, and vehicles enveloping.
With few exceptions, dialogue maintains a clean, clear fidelity as well, minor lines resisting perfection for something slightly less wound in the first act. Balanced beautifully, nothing is lost or taken away from the design which is allowed to breathe each element. The score sweeps through effortlessly, creating unnerving and poignant highs. This is superb work.
There’s a single extra here, an hour long, interview-heavy making-of that tracks the story from its novel origins to the completion of filming. It’s quality over quantity.
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