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Sarah's Key

(2011) ** 1/2 Pg-13
113 min. The Weinstein Company. Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Astrup, Frédéric Pierrot (II), Michel Duchaussoy.

/content/films/4142/1.jpgThe genealogy craze of the last several years reflects a hunger to put our lives in a greater context and, perhaps, to get a bit of reflected glow from our ancestors. Your own drama getting a bit dull? The trials of your forebears can provide past-life pride in the endurance of the family line. The French drama Sarah's Key gives genealogy a twist as a modern-day woman obsessively plumbs the past of a family not her own, eventually turning up a descendant who has forgotten never to forget.

Indeed, the Holocaust plays a part in Sarah's Key, adapted by writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and co-screenwriter Serge Joncour from Tatiana de Rosnay's novel. Everyone's favorite bilingual star Kristin Scott Thomas plays journalist Julia Jarmond, assigned by her magazine to cover the sixtieth anniversary of the Vél' d'Hiv' Roundup. An enduring national shame, the Vél' d'Hiv' Roundup found the French police arresting 13,000 Jews in Paris, holding them in a velodrome (under conditions likened to the fallout of Hurricane Katrina), then transporting them to an internment camp before their final destination of Auschwitz.

Coincidentally, the apartment Julia and her husband have inherited from his family once belonged to a Jewish family displaced during the roundup. Fearing the worst, Julia begins investigating personal histories: what became of the Jewish family, and what role her own family may have played. Julia's investigation unlocks a storyline that plays out in flashbacks, that of ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her family. During the roundup, Sarah tries to protect her brother by locking him in a secret compartment (hence Sarah's Key). By the time she realizes she may have done more harm than good, it's too late.

Strong work from Mayance and Thomas keeps Sarah's Key from rusting amid the sometime soddenness of the script. Mayance captures Sarah's guilessness, guilt and terror, while Thomas evokes the infiltration of the past into Julia's present, a Pandora's Box of truth she couldn't close if she wanted to. Long after her story is filed, Julia can't let it go, and she realizes that if she is to exorcise Sarah's ghost, she will have to track down her descendants and make sure the past meets up with the present for all concerned. This path eventually leads Julia to a man (Aidan Quinn) who realizes his ancestry has been something of a lie.

The truth shall set you free, so they say, and the film locates calm after the storm of Julia's obsession. Her marriage has been rattled, not only by her historical search, but by an unexpected surprise in her own relationship. Sarah's Key isn't about the past or the present but the intersection of the two in legacy, what Julia calls "the memory of who we were, and the hope of what we become.”

{This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/22/2011

Distributor: Anchor Bay/Starz

The Weinstein Company sends home Sarah's Key on Blu-ray in a special edition featuring impressive A/V specs. The digital-to-digital transfer can be considered definitive in fidelity to the source material, with perfect color representation, outstanding detail, and well calibrated contrast and black level. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix offers top-notch home surround dynamics, with fine discrete separation, full bodyto music and sound effects, and fine clarity to the dialogue.

The sole bonus feature is a strong one: the sizeable documentary "The Making of Sarah's Key" (1:03:06, SD). The doc covers the adaptation from page to screen, including footage of pre-production rehearsals and the film shoot, as well as interviews with novelist Tatiana De Rosnay, writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, producer Stéphane Marsil, publishers Héloise d'Ormesson and Gilles Cohen Solal, supervisor of special effects Antonin Seydoux, production designer Françoise Dupertuis, Niels Arestrup, and Arben Bajraktaraj.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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