Suite Française

 

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In this wartime romance, the strength of Irène Némirovsky's original story shines through 

the multi-national gloss.

 

Suite Française

Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenaerts

 

She’s a beautiful young woman with a love of classical music. He’s a handsome young man who can write a pretty good sonata. In any normal universe Lucile and Bruno would be a match made in Heaven. But she’s a married French woman and he’s a Nazi officer billeted at her farmhouse.

 

The essence of Irène Némirovsky's novel is that we are who we are whatever uniform we wear. The remarkable thing about the story is that Némirovsky wrote it during the Second World War – before she perished at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz. But it took over half a century before her manuscript was read by her daughter, Denise, who then had it published in 2004. By 2008 it had sold 2.5 million copies and has now been translated into 38 languages. It’s easy to understand the remarkable success of the novel, posthumous or otherwise. At its heart is a wonderful story. However, there’s a problem with its cinematic adaptation.

 

It’s a shock to see the Nazis march into the sleepy rural town of Bussy-Saint-Georges in France. It’s a shock because the town would already appear to be occupied – by the British. Here, the American actress Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn) plays a French woman with a cut-glass English accent. Her domineering mother-in-law is played by Kristin Scott Thomas (actually a French citizen) in similar vein, while the likes of Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson and Harriet Walter round out the British cast. Consequently, the film’s most plausible character is the German officer Bruno von Falk, portrayed with quiet dignity by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. But the film has barely started when the smell of an international miniseries rises from the French countryside like the whiff of an overdose of pre-packaged garlic. Bucolic Gallic stereotypes abound (Margot Robbie is unrecognisable as a raunchy farm girl in the Gypsy tradition), while Dame Harriet Walter seems an odd choice to play Viscountess to Lambert Wilson’s youthful-looking Viscount (although, in real life, he’s only eight years younger).

 

Still, if one is willing to overlook the clichés of Saul Dibb’s direction, the film does exert a certain grip. It all looks lovely (a pivotal kiss is back-lit by the sun - seriously) and the emotional issues of Némirovsky's story are well wrung.

  

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Lambert Wilson, Clare Holman, Margot Robbie, Tom Schilling, Harriet Walter, Alexandra Maria Lara, Deborah Findlay, Heino Ferch, Simon Dutton, Diana Kent, Bernice Stegers, Paul Ritter, and Eileen Atkins (uncredited).

 

Dir Saul Dibb, Pro Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn and Xavier Marchand, Screenplay Saul Dibb and Matt Charman, Ph Eduard Grau, Pro Des Michael Carlin, Ed Chris Dickens, Music Rael Jones, Costumes Michael O’Connor.

 

Entertainment One/BBC Films/Qwerty Films/TF1 Films Production/Radio Television TSE-Entertainment One.

107 mins. UK/France/Canada/Belgium. 2014. Rel: 13 March 2015. Cert. 15.