| This war drama based on the beloved best-selling 2007 novel by Tatiana de Rosnay tells a story that should never be forgotten. The characters are entirely fictitious, but they put names and faces to the 13,000 Jewish men, women and children arrested by the French police in the great Velodrome d’ Hiver roundup that took place on July 16, 1942, in the heart of Paris.
This cinematic tribute to the 76,000 Jews deported from France during the Holocaust pays special mention to the children who never came back and the few lucky ones that survived.
The movie begins with a loud pounding on the door of the third floor apartment located in the Marais district of Paris. The French police are there to take into custody the Polish Jewish family named Starzynski consisting of husband Wladyslaw, 32, his wife Rywka, 30, their 10-year-old daughter Sarah (Melusine Mayance) and 4-year-old son Michel.
After answering the door, Sarah goes into the bedroom and tells Michel to pretend they are playing a game of hide-and-seek. He climbs into the long, deep cupboard in the wall and Sarah locks him in. She slips the titular key in her pocket. She whispers to him through the wooden panel, “I’ll come back for you later. I promise.”
The movie shifts gears and fast forwards to Paris of 2009. American journalist Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas from “The English Patient” and “Gosford Park”) gets an assignment to do a 10-page article for her Parisian-based magazine on the thousands of Jewish families locked up for days in the summer of 1942 at the famous indoor stadium where bicycle races were held.
Julia is married to French architect Bertrand Tezac and they have an 11-year-old daughter Zoe. They are on the verge of moving into an apartment previously occupied for more than 66 years by Bertrand’s paternal grandparents, Andre and Mame Tezac.
Sarah and her parents spend several deplorable days in the stadium before being transported in an overcrowded truck to a transit camp. Upon arrival, Sarah and her mother are separated from Wladysaw. Later, Sarah is separated from her mother. Both her parents end up in the crematoriums of Auschwitz.
Julia visits Mame at the nursing home and learns that the apartment has a history tracing back to World War II. It turns out that the Tezac family moved in right after a Jewish family was deported.
Julia determines from the records that the family’s name was Starzynski and this ties the two story threads together. Julia begins a genealogical search to find the missing Sarah.
On the domestic front, Julia finds out from a home testing kit that she is pregnant. When she tells Bertrand the good news over dinner, he insists that she have an abortion.
Other characters that play key roles in Sarah’s survival tale include fellow prisoner Rachel, a kind policeman named Jacques and foster parents Genevieve and Jules Dufaure (Niels Arestrup from “Farewell,” “A Prophet” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Genevieve and Jules are representative of those most deserving non-Jews declared Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The movie jumps back and forth in time during its entirety. Sarah’s story is much more compelling and the audience is fully invested in her fate. It feels like an intrusion on the forward momentum in 1942 every time we are forced to switch tracks returning to the present day. Julia’s decision whether to abort or not seems trivial compared to Sarah’s dire straits that teeter on the edge of life and death. There is much less tension in 2009 and an absence of a rooting interest for the journalist.
Although a wonderful story, it seems to come out in fits and starts. The slow, meandering pace may be a turnoff to those unfamiliar with the novel. The movie also does a poor job of identifying characters. The quest for the truth and the search for a missing person from the Holocaust is the fascination that keeps us engaged in the mystery.
Mayance, in her feature film debut, takes the cake in the acting category. She is natural and believable in the most important role in the movie.
Thomas is a reliable class act with innumerable thespian gifts.
Arestrup is a French treasure and has appeared in some of my all-time favorite foreign language films.
Another familiar actor to American audiences, Aidan Quinn (“Songcatcher” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”) plays a vital role in the last act.
The movie debuted at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and began making the rounds about a month ago in major U. S. cities.
The dialogue is partially in French, German and Italian with English subtitles. It opens exclusively at the Glenwood Arts, AMC Town Center 20 and the Tivoli in Westport.
As a postscript, I highly recommend that you read the excellent book to fill in all the missing blanks. I rank the novel right up there with “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It kept me up all night and the 293 heartfelt pages will linger in my memory forever.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"