Kristin Scott Thomas conjures images of the quintessentially British thespian, having portraying upper crust or reserved characters in films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The English Patient,” for which she received a 1997 Oscar nomination. In previous newspaper stories, writers also have described her as reserved.
But Scott Thomas was thoughtful, even passionate while discussing her new movie, “Sarah’s Key” (opening July 22), in which she portrays an American journalist living in Paris who uncovers secrets involving the Shoah. The actress has already earned stellar reviews for her emotional but never-maudlin performance in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film, adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel.
The drama cuts back and forth in time to tell the slowly intertwining stories of Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), an expatriate in Paris circa 2002, and Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), a 10-year-old arrested by the French police during the infamous “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of 1942. In July of that year, 13,000 Jews were corralled into the Velodrome d’Hiver and held in appalling conditions for several days before internment in transit camps, then Auschwitz.
Before being herded off with her parents, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return to release him. That promise will not only torment Sarah, but will haunt Jarmond, who, while researching the little-known history of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, discovers that the apartment she is about to move into once belonged to the Starzynskis.
“I don’t see [‘Sarah’s Key’] as a Holocaust film,” said Scott Thomas, 51, who has lived in Paris almost all of her adult life. “While it takes place during this dark and dismal period in French history, I don’t see it as a reconstruction of a movie about what you would call the Holocaust. After watching Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah,’ for example, I’ve found most films reconstructing those events to be rather pitiful.”
Scott Thomas was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” because it “doesn’t just recreate events but explores how the past continues to affect the present.” And she has her own connection to the material. Her ex-husband, the renowned fertility doctor Francois Olivennes, is Jewish; they were married for 17 years and have three children. And her former mother-in-law, who was hidden as a child during the war and with whom Scott Thomas remains close, was active in an organization that placed memorial plaques around Paris.
Has the actress ever pondered what might have happened to her own half-Jewish children had they been alive during World War II? “Since they were born, I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” she said. “In Paris, you can walk down the street and see the plaques commemorating children who were taken from their schools, from orphanages, from hospitals – unbelieveable. If this were 1942, my family would be in hiding, terrified of being turned in.”
Aidan Quinn plays another expatriate who is swept up by Jarmond into Sarah’s heartbreaking story. “Part of why we’re here is to learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen throughout the world,” he said. “In ‘Sarah’s Key,’ we really burrow into our human behavior, and it’s an important message.”
The mark of the past on the present is prominent in Scott Thomas’ own life, which was irrevocably altered when her father, a pilot in the Royal Navy, died in an airplane crash when she was 5. The eldest of her siblings, Scott Thomas was warned not to cry lest it upset the younger children. Six years later, her stepfather, also a pilot, died in almost identical circumstances. “You survive terrible grief,” she said of the ordeal.
At 18, the aspiring actress enrolled in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, but professors told her she wasn’t talented enough for the profession. In an attempt to leave unhappy memories behind her, Scott Thomas relocated to Paris, enrolled in a French drama school, and met Olivennes, whom, she has said, became “her rock” during periods of depression stemming from her childhood.
His extended family, which consisted largely of Holocaust survivors, provided her with a startling kind of education. In high school in England, Scott Thomas had learned little about the Final Solution: “It was not [considered] part of English history; certainly it wasn’t in our bones,” she said.
Her husband’s relatives “were people who had been in hiding during the war; who had survived or escaped camps; one branch of our family had actually caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said. “Every Sunday when we would have lunch together, all these stories would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories. Of course now many of these people have passed away, or if they are still alive, they’re in their 80s and 90s. But they really, really, really affected me,” she said with a sigh.
The survivors proved to be “fantastic role models” for how to live in the wake of tragedy: “I didn’t survive viciousness or anybody purposely injuring me and trying to ruin my life,” she clarified. “But I have survived great emotional suffering.” The Holocaust survivors impressed her with their will to endure and their “sense of the preciousness of life, which I found quite seductive in a way.”
Scott Thomas had long hoped to do a film that touched on the Shoah, but found the scripts she received “all turned out to be just a cheesy reproduction of events.” Then she read “Sarah’s Key” and met the film’s director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who was well aware of the dangers of Holocaust movie “fatigue.” He aimed to make a film that would resonate with younger generations, as well as a French public only beginning to acknowledge France’s role in the Final Solution.
“I personally would have had issues pretending to be suffering from [Nazi persecution] when I’m just an actress,” Scott Thomas said. “So when this project came along and had relevance to contemporary life, I fell in love with it. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. It was mine.”
It helped that Scott Thomas, in her words, “felt very close to the character,” who becomes estranged from her husband as Sarah’s story meshes with her own. “Julia is somebody who is reaching a crisis in her life, and I had separated from my husband [in 2005],” the actress said.
“Julia is battling with is her own sense of what her life is about, as well as the breakup of her marriage. Her search for the truth is her own way of making herself better, because she’s in such turmoil. She’s using this search for Sarah and Sarah’s life, as a kind of template for what her future will be.”
Before making “Sarah’s Key,” Scott Thomas visited concentration camps around Krakow with her three children and one of her Ex’s cousins, an 86-year-old survivor of numerous camps and a death march.
Her performance is strong but understated. “What I liked about the way Gilles Paquet-Brenner dealt with this subject was that he made it unsentimental and really quite tough,” she said.