Tag Archives: historical

Review – Sarah’s Key (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

Sarah’s Key, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Pretty Things, Payoff, Walled In), is a powerful study of the impact of the Holocaust on one person’s life. Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott-Thomas – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Nowhere Boy, Tell No One) is an American journalist living in Paris and married into a well-to-do French Family, with a teenage daughter. About to inherit a flat from her husband’s family, she gradually discovers that the flat has an unpleasant history – that it once belonged to a Jewish family until they were forcibly evicted and rounded-up by officials of the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime on 16th July 1942.

Julia (Kristin Scott-Thomas) make alarming discoveries about the past.

The film operates on two narrative levels – Julia’s own revelations in the present, coupled with the fate of that family seen through the eyes of 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance – Ricky). Whereas some films that employ a multi-narrative focus can become confusing to the viewer, skilful editing allows the story here to be told in a straightforward and effective way.

Sarah’s story is truly a harrowing one. Before the French police can see them, she locks her younger brother in a bedroom cupboard, taking the key with her and determined to come back. She and her parents are taken to the sports stadium, the Velodrome d’hiver, which for three days became a makeshift concentration camp for thousands of Jews, until they were transferred to other internment facilities.

Without operating on a massive budget, Paquet-Brenner allows the viewer to be immersed in this terrible situation, providing a shocking snapshot of life within the ‘Vel d’hiver’ – the appalling sanitary conditions, the lack of space and the awful uncertainty faced by all the internees as they awaited their fate. There is occasional bravery and foolhardiness, as one inmate carries out a daring escape. Sarah’s fate, and the travails she has to endure are also portrayed with a hard-hitting immediacy. She and her parents are transferred to the Beane-la-Rolande camp outside Paris. After being separated from her parents, who are sent unknowingly to Auschwitz, she and another child escape the camp. Sarah finally achieves a kind of freedom.

But even in later life, she is haunted by the events of the past. Mayance plays Sarah with enormous charisma – we are totally engrossed in her fate. Charlotte Poutrel who plays Sarah in later life imbues her with both moving dignity and tangible personal trauma.

Sarah (Melusine Mayance) in happier times.

Meanwhile in the present, Julia faces her own struggles and is forced to re-evaluate her own life as she asks questions that her in-laws would prefer were not asked, representing the general unease felt in some areas of French society about the events of the 1940s.She also faces up to the reality of her unhappy marriage – she becomes pregnant, which her husband, preoccupied by work, is painfully indifferent about. She goes on a personal quest to find out more about the fate of Sarah and her family, which leads her to New York and Italy where she finally meets Sarah’s son, played by Aidan Quinn (Blink, Legends of the Fall, Unknown), who knows little of his mother’s fate.

Next year is the 70th anniversary of the round-up of French Jews, which has also prompted another film on the subject, La Rafle (The Round-Up). There, the narrative is squarely based in the 1940s and has more of a documentary-style feel as scenes depicting Hitler and Himmler, and machinations of the Vichy authorities are run alongside the awful fate of the Jewish families. That leads to an informative and disturbing film, but somewhat distant. Here the pain and stoicism Scott-Thomas portrays in her performance provides an intensely personal and unifying emotional core to the film. As the fate of Sarah unfolds for her, so it does for us, staying with us long after the cinema has been left.


Review – Season of the Witch (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 1.5/5

When one goes to see films like Solomon Kane, The Kingdom of Heaven or Eragon, one invariably goes with low expectations: the lower the expectations, the less chance of disappointment (even if you enjoy the genre). Season of the Witch very much comes into this bracket of poor films wherein one has to aim low in order for it to be remotely worth watching.

Felson (Ron Perlman) and Behmen (Nicholas Cage) as knights of the Church telling a fellow crusader of their intention to quit the fight against the Muslims.

The movie is set between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe, during the time of the Crusades. Behmen (Nicolas Cage – Face/Off, Con Air, Joe) and Felson (Ron Perlman – Hellboy I & II, Conan The Barbarian) are knights fighting for Christ and God against the Muslims until they become disillusioned with the Church. Subsequently, they desert and go back to Austria. But on their return, they find the towns and villages ravaged by bubonic plague. It is said that a witch (Claire Foy – Little Dorrit) has brought this affliction upon the land; for wherever she goes, so does the contagious disease.

It is decided by the local cleric that the witch must be taken to another town to be tried by the most learned priests in the country. The cleric believes that by charging her with witchcraft, God will end the plague. Thus, it is up to Behmen and Felson to take her to this town. A handful of others join them. But the road is dangerous and few have ever ridden it. (Fewer still have returned to tell the tale.) And with the witch travelling with them, unforeseen problems will arise.

The plot is probably a little more entertaining than that. But whether the storyline is the basis for the film’s entertainment is doubtful. The special effects (if one can call them that) throughout Season of the Witch are appalling. Likewise is the acting and the dialogue. Arguably, the thick American accents of Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, despite being in medieval Europe, epitomise the pathetic and comic nature of the film’s production.

Despite these, there are aspects of Season of the Witch that give the film amateurish respectability. The sarcastic humour/banter between Behmen and Felson makes for some amusement; especially, when their wry remarks are aimed at the corruption of the Church. Similarly, the witch’s devilish smile keeps one guessing whether she is actually a witch or a mere victim of a medieval witch-hunt.

The witch (Claire Foy) is caged up as she is transported to her trial. There are few who doubt that she’s not guilty of spreading the epidemic to wherever she turns up.

The historical features of the film are also quite accurate. Whilst Behmen and Felson are undoubtedly fictional characters, the battles they fought in are not. Additionally, the director, Dominic Sena (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Swordfish), has shown medieval villages and towns for what they really were: crap-holes. Very often, Hollywood glosses over these details by making towns and villages appear relatively clean, and by making the inhabitants of such places look happy. In Season of the Witch, there is none of this. Sewage, smoke, rubbish, mud, dirt, rats, plague and misery are part of everyday life for the folks here (just like it was for our ancestors) and are well detailed. Indeed, after seeing some of these scenes, one can understand why the Black Death used to spread like wildfire until hygiene became the general consensus.

Over-all, one can put together a long list of reasons for why not to see Season of the Witch. The film has very little saving grace. For those who don’t like the genre, one may struggle to justify finishing the movie. For those who do enjoy the genre, one is left to laugh at how poorly it has been produced. However, that and very low expectations are what saves Season of the Witch from total disaster.

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