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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Sarah's Key (Blu-ray Disc)

Sarah's Key (Blu-ray Disc)

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Sarah's Key
2010 (2011) - Hugo Productions (TVA Films)
Released on Blu-ray disc on November 22nd, 2011
Also available on DVD

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 18
Audio (1-20): 9
Extras: D

[Editor's Note: Cover art and purchase links are also provided for the Anchor Bay U.S. version - below left - which offers DTS-HD MA audio. The actual review text refers to the Canadian TVA Films release - shown above left. Barrie says the Anchor Bay version is superior and is the one you should purchase.]

I have always been a big fan of Kristin Scott Thomas's film work, and never more so than during the past few years when she has been working mainly in France. Films such as I've Loved You So Long (2008) and Leaving (2009) are rewarding experiences, but they pale in comparison to 2010's Sarah's Key. Based on the book of the same title by French author Tatiana De Rosnay, the film focuses powerfully on one of the consequences of a shameful event that occurred in Paris during World War II - the round-up of some 10,000 Jews by French authorities, their removal to the Vel d'Hiv (short for the velodrome d'hiver - winter's bicycle arena) and subsequent transfer to Nazi death camps where many of them later died.

In Sarah's Key, a young girl named Sarah Starzynski attempts to protect her brother from discovery by the round-up forces by locking him in a closet in their home. Recognizing later the possibly fatal consequences of her actions, she attempts to escape from Vel d'Hiv and get back to her home to rescue him. Paralleling this historical story is that of Julia, an American journalist (Kristin Scott Thomas) who, 60 years later, is researching a story on the Vel d'Hiv incident and discovers that the apartment her husband Bertrand is renovating for them to move into is the same apartment from which the Starzynski family were taken and which Julia's husband's family later occupied. Much of the film's second half shows us Julia's efforts to find out what happened to Sarah, both in relation to her rescue attempt of her brother and subsequently.

The film overall does a fine job in conveying the main thrust of the book on which it was based, although inevitably a few story threads are abbreviated or dropped entirely. Generally, I don't believe readers of the book will be disappointed.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Kristin Scott Thomas particularly impressive in conveying the horror she senses in Sarah's developing story while at the same time balancing the difficulties in her own personal life centred around her pregnancy and her husband's apparent ambivalence to it. Melusine Mayance as the young Sarah grips our attention every time she's on screen. Aidan Quinn has a fine almost cameo-like appearance late in the film, but it is the impressive French supporting cast that bolsters Thomas's and Mayance's efforts immeasurably. Particularly notable among them are Niels Arestrup and Dominique Frot as a couple who play a key role in Sarah's life.

Although Sarah's Key is a film of the Holocaust, its approach is not overt, but focuses on the solving of a mystery rather than the grim details of Holocaust activities. The subdued approach in no way minimizes the horrors of the times; in fact by focusing on a lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust - one carried out by French authorities on their own citizens - and in particular one small family story within that aspect, it emphasizes the many horrific smaller scale events of the Holocaust whose impacts continued to resonate long after.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner shows a deft touch with the material. The events of the Vel d'Hiv round-up are strongly choreographed, communicating effectively the brutality, horror, and emotional turmoil of the action. Otherwise he draws strong work from all the actors, young and old, and he maintains a good air of suspense throughout.

Sarah's Key is available on Blu-ray from TVA Films in Canada and Anchor Bay in the United States. I had a copy of the former release for review. The 2.35:1 image offers superior detail in both interior and exterior scenes with colours that are generally bright and accurate. Vibrancy is purposely dialed down for the wartime sequences. There is no evidence of digital manipulation, as one might expect given that the film was shot digitally. In general terms, the image conveys a depth of field that looks very natural indeed.

Unfortunately, the audio side of things is less happy. TVA has given us only a Dolby Digital 5.1 track - no lossless option at all. The clarity of the French dialogue frequently seems less than it could be as a result, and surround activity has minimal impact. The English subtitles are a mess. Sometimes they make no sense and frequently, they're riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. For what it's worth, they are confined to within the picture frame at least, so that constant-height, home-theatre set-ups are not compromised.

The only supplement is the theatrical trailer.

Despite Sarah's Key's excellence as a film, it pains me to recommend that one take a pass on TVA's Blu-ray release. From my knowledge of Anchor Bay's American release, it is far the preferable version and worth seeking out. The Anchor Bay image reportedly is at least comparable while the audio offers a DTS-HD track and there is a fine, lengthy (>1 hour) making-of documentary included. I have no knowledge of the quality of the English subtitles.

Barrie Maxwell
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