Title: Suite Francaise
Director: Saul Dibb
Major Players: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts
Out Of Five: 3
Romance isn’t dead, it’s just been hiding behind the duck tape and cable ties – and it makes a welcome return this week in the very traditional form of war time love story, Suite Francaise.
Based on the novel of the same name, it’s set in occupied France where Lucile (Michelle Williams) shares a comfortable home with her mother in law (Kristin Scott Thomas), one they’re forced to share with German officer Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts). A composer before he became a soldier, and courteous to a fault, he and Lucile find themselves increasingly attracted to each other. It’s not only dangerous, but it soon means they have to choose between their feelings and their loyalties to their country, family and friends.
Now that sounds like a real tear-jerker, which is exactly what it should be. But it has a backstory that’s far more captivating and that was what gave me a lump in the throat. It’s not just set during the War, it was written during it as well, by Russian émigré Irene Nemirovsky, whose family had moved to France during the Russian Revolution. She eventually died in Auschwitz, but her daughter managed to hold on to her notebooks, although she thought they were memoirs and didn’t open them for years. Some forty years on, she read them, transcribed them and the resulting novel was published some ten years ago. It became a best seller.
This is the film version. But somehow the passion and intensity – that vital spark – between Williams’ and Shoenaerts’ characters translates into something soulless and ever so slightly wooden on the big screen. Which is a bit of a problem when theirs is the relationship at the heart of the film. It’s apparent that the attraction isn’t purely sexual – we see plenty of that elsewhere – and we know that Bruno is a good guy. That’s not just because he likes music: we have unpleasant little Lieutenant Bonnet (Tom Schilling) to be his exact opposite, exemplifying the brutality of the Nazis. He’s billeted with an impoverished farming couple and makes his intentions towards the wife transparently clear, rubbing in the fact that the husband has a damaged leg, ergo he’s not a real man.
At least we’re not getting quite the rosy picture of the war painted by The Book Thief. Admittedly, their audiences are different but they’re still romances in their own way. We see the anti-semitic posters pinned up by the Germans around the town, a death by firing squad when the soldiers can’t find a local man who’s killed one of their own and the results of torture suffered by one of the main characters. And we also hear the comments the locals make to anybody they think is collaborating with the Germans, especially if they happen to be a woman.
Made with funding from BBC Films, it has a very British – and rather BBC – feel to it. It also comes complete with a collection of familiar faces, not the least is Kristin Scott Thomas as the cold hearted mother in law who eventually discovers a heart. She’s spot-on in the role although, in all honesty, it’s like rolling off a log for somebody of her talents. Ruth Wilson, Harriet Walter, an almost unrecognisable Margot Robbie in a frizzy black wig, Claire Holman and Sam Riley are also there. The production values are good but, overall, it looks and feels as if it was designed to be shown on TV at Christmas.
Suite Francaise isn’t especially bad, but it could have been so much better, especially given all the talent on show. As it stands, it’s a little too close to a chocolate box film to be taken seriously and it certainly didn’t tug at my heart strings. That said, there were some snuffles at the screening I attended. They just didn’t belong to me.
Suite Francaise is currently on general release.