I love double feature days. Sometimes I even indulge in a triple feature day but time constraints make that a rare treat.
The afternoon of September 11th was a twofer, but given the date, I was in a pensive mood and selected a couple of somber films to build on that tone.
Sarah’s Key and The Debt have several things in common. Each film has parallel storylines set in different historical periods, each has a connection to the Holocaust, and each features strong performances but fails to coalesce into movie magic.
Kristen Scott Thomas is superb in Sarah’s Key. She really is capable of great subtlety and great depth of emotion at the same time in emotionally complex films. Seeing this film reminded me how much I enjoyed her in the 2008 film I’ve Loved You So Long.
In Sarah’s Key, she plays a journalist working in Paris who discovers a secret about a young girl whose family was rounded up by the French government in 1942 – along with thousands of other Jews – and transported to Nazi death camps.
History is seldom straightforward, and French alliances in World War II lend support to that way of thinking. The particulars of this story are fictionalized, but the historical backdrop is true. The film is based on a novel that tells a story about a little girl who hides her brother when French officials come to arrest her family, but then she realizes that her family is going to be deported while the young boy is stuck in a closet in their empty apartment.
The film is engrossing and quite promising until the final act. Up until then, this is a carefully constructed and thoughtful narrative. but the end fizzles as the dramatic tension comes unraveled.
Sarah’s Key is worth seeing, but don’t expect it to finish as strong as it starts.
I have to give a similarly qualified recommendation to The Debt.
Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent who becomes involved in modern day implications of a celebrated case she worked on years before in East Berlin. In the sixties, she worked with two other agents to catch a doctor known as the butcher of Birkenau, a war criminal in hiding who had performed grotesque and cruel experiments on people interned at the concentration and extermination camp during the war.
The story, like Sarah’s Key, is told in two timelines but this one with younger versions of the same main characters. Jessica Chastain (seen recently in Tree of Life and The Help) plays the younger version of Mirren’s character, Rachel, and the story includes a love triangle involving Rachel with the two agents working with her.
Watching The Debt, I kept thinking it either needed some of the sustained tension of the best sequences in Hitchcock’s (otherwise mediocre) Cold War film Torn Curtain or the remarkable and dazzling interiority of one of my favorite films, The Lives of Others, which is set in East Germany but in the 1980s.
I think most people will find it entertaining, but there’s just no magic there. My favorite film by director John Madden is Shakespeare in Love. The Debt is competently made with good performances, but it’s not likely to have the sustained following of Shakespeare in Love, which I wouldn’t mind watching again most any time.
Movie magic is an elusive thing. After seeing my Sunday double feature, I came home and noticed that Casablanca was scheduled to air at 8 p.m. I had some work to do but decided to “watch” the film at the same time, and I did more actual watching than planned because I couldn’t stop looking. There’s an example of movie magic; Casablanca is a film that never loses its luster. It continued my World War II theme of the day as well and contains a notable flashback sequence if not a parallel storyline.
Later this semester, students taking my Introduction to Film class will see Casablanca, many of them for the first time. It’s a gift I’m happy to give them, and I hope they appreciate the magic.