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Film Review: Sarah's Key unlocks the future

Film Review: Sarah's Key unlocks the future

The truth can be an ugly thing, and those who uncover it the unwelcome messengers. But the truth can also be a release, and tear away the comfortable lies we chose to live inside. At its heart, this is the message of the film Sarah's Key, and it is no surprise that the central protagonist is a journalist

Despite the ravages of citizen journalism, the internet and regurgitated media releases, the magazine that American Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) works for in Paris still commissions journalists to do investigative writing. In what seems like fiction to the modern reporter, Julia demands – and receives – 10 pages in which to do an in-depth article on the notorious Vel d'Hiv round up, which took place in Paris in 1942.

Based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Tatiana de Rosnay (herself a journalist), the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present. The time shift allows us to follow the story of the Vel d'Hiv from 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski's perspective, and Julia's modern-day investigation of the black period in France's history when thousands of Jewish occupants were rounded up, dispossessed and deported.

Sarah's Key, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is not just the story of a journalist on a hunt and another grueling World War II tale. An important part of the narrative is Julia's unraveling marriage to her ambitious husband, architect Bertrand Tézac (Frédéric Pierrot), and her agonizing decision as to whether to continue with her unexpected pregnancy.

Julia is in her late forties, and her husband wants her to terminate so they can enjoy the Tézac apartment he is renovating in what was once a thriving Jewish district in Paris. He doesn't want dirty nappies and sleepless nights, he wants to cling to what youth he has left – though as their teenage daughter wryly observes at the end of the movie when she spies his young lover; "youth is not sexually transmitted".

When Julia begins her investigation, she finds the secrets of her husband's family intersect with Sarah's life. And it all leads back to the Tézac apartment. The true cost of war is shown from all sides; those who fill the spaces left by the dispossessed can never escape the guilt that results from living in a home violently vacated by others. As Sarah's Key reveals, it is a stain that bleeds through generations.

The resilient and resourceful Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) is forever haunted by a decision to hide her younger brother in a closet when the family is taken from the apartment. What happens to Sarah's brother starts off as a child's answer to avoiding the round up – let's play hide and seek. As Michael Frayn observed in his book "The Human Touch", you can make a game into a matter of life and death – and you can make life and death into a game.

We know that four-year-old Michel can not last long in the hiding place, even with the carafe of water Sarah pushes inside. Each time Sarah pulls out the cupboard door key and implores someone to help her get back to the apartment, we know what she will find. Still, the scene where Sarah eventually makes her way back to the apartment – now occupied by Bertrand's grandparents, is harrowing. The camera deftly reveals nothing except Sarah's reaction, and those of the adults around her.

Julia's journey becomes a quest for the truth of what happened to Sarah Starzynski and her family and it is one that brings the focus of the film to identity. Just as Sarah rips off the yellow Star of David badge from her clothes to escape her Jewish identity, so too must Julia fight against other's expectations and demands.

As Julia sits on the edge of the hospital bed, contemplating an abortion her husband says is "for the best", it is not surprising that she chooses the identity of "mother" above "lover" and flees, setting up a chain of events that inevitably lead to her raising the child alone in America. There is a very powerful scene at the end of the movie where a solitary Kristin Scott Thomas pushes a stroller through the snow in Central Park. Her body language encapsulates a range of emotions – joy, fear, anxiety, triumph and love and determination.

For Julia's choice is to pursue her dreams and the truth despite the personal cost. Time and time again she is told "leave well enough alone". But of course, she does not listen. She has both stubbornness and curiosity - essential traits for journalists.

Evelyn Tsitas is the co-author of the parenting book Handle With Care. She is a PhD student at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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