Life is not always shaped like drama, but history often lends itself to classical narratives. Just as often, however, events of great consequence can be pithy shortcuts. Hence the genre of the Holocaust Movie, which has become shorthand for films that lean too heavily on the historical icons of tragedy rather than creating a work that stands on its own. The most recent examples include “The Reader,” “The Boy with the Striped Pajamas” and now “Sarah’s Key,” a well-meaning but disappointingly simplistic tale of Nazism and its ramifications in the present.
Adapting Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-seller with co-screenwriter Serge Joncour, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner follows 10-year-old Sarah (Mélusine Mayance), a young girl in Vichy France eager to rescue her little brother. The plot revolves around her family’s abduction from their Paris home during the 1942 Velv’ d’Hiv Roundup, when thousands of Jews were stuffed into the city’s Winter Velodrome stadium prior to deportation to Auschwitz. In a moment of urgency, Sarah locks her brother in her bedroom closet, then spends her time in captivity frantically trying to get home and rescue him. For the contemporary perspective, Sarah’s quest develops a mythological dimension explored in the present by American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose fascination with the story takes a toll on her personal life.
Sarah’s grim adventure maintains plenty of basic suspense in its early scenes. But when “Sarah’s Key” attempts to inject the tale with immediacy — advancing Sarah through several decades and shifting the focus to Julia’s modern perspective — the movie becomes a horribly didactic affair. When one of Sarah’s younger colleagues expresses unfamiliarity with the Velv’ d’Hiv Roundup, she tells him to “imagine the Superdome, but a million times worse.” (Actually, official records suggest there were more people living in the ramshackle conditions of the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, although none were shipped off for slaughter.) Julia offers another clarification: “This wasn’t the Germans. It was the French.”
True, and tragic, but not enough to move the drama beyond being another Holocaust Movie. Sarah’s need to save her brother provides the initial raison d’être, but with the mystery is resolved early on “Sarah’s Key” turns into a flimsy meditation on grief. With lines like “We’re all a part of history,” the screenplay tries to find a personal angle to enliven a tragedy it assumes audiences view remotely. It’s an earnest goal, but eventually undone by impulse pandering to the lowest common denominator.
The time-hopping structure may function better in novel form, but “Sarah’s Key” relies on a cross-cutting strategy that overstates its purpose. The zero-sum result is neither the journalistic investigation nor Sarah’s dramatic escape commands the weight it needs. “Each generation needs its movie,” Paquet-Brenner recently told the New York Times, but “Sarah’s Key” fails to unlock the secret of what that movie might be. The search continues.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company is probably hoping for older arthouse audiences to show up for “Sarah’s Key” and tell their friends, providing a momentum that would carry over to Oscar season. However, the mixed reviews are likely to hinder that effort. It opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.