Dir: Saul Dibb; Wri: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman; Pro: Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand; DOP: Edouard Grau; Ed: Chris Dickens; Mus: Rael Jones. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie
A soapy wartime yarn elevated by a handsome production and some strong performances, Suite Française cannot, by definition, capture what makes Irène Némirovsky’s source novel such an intriguing proposition. Written during the Nazi occupation of France but left incomplete at the time of Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française was completed posthumously and published in 2004. The novel’s unique provenance has little bearing on its plot, though, which has been streamlined here into a familiar, but mildly engrossing, story of forbidden love.
Michelle Williams takes the central role of Lucile, a young woman who lives with her frosty mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a small French village, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. When the women are forced to accommodate a German soldier, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) in their home, an unlikely secret romance blossoms, leading to assorted melodramatic ramifications. Williams has a natural subtlety that was genuinely affecting in her breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (2004), and has served her well in her two collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. Here, her reserved, watchful quality brings some much needed shading to the thinly written character of Lucile. There is, however, a distinct lack of spark between Williams and Schoenarts, leaving the plot’s engine sputtering. Schoenarts certainly looks the part of a paperback romantic hero, but the script’s insistence on presenting Bruno simply as a good man in a bad situation are bland at best and disingenuous at worst, and leave the character less neutral than neutered.
The tone is generally old-fashioned, with the crisp British accents in which the French villagers communicate evoking – with a certain charm – the Warner Bros. pot-boilers of the 1940s. Director Saul Dibb, who made his debut with the inner-city gang drama Bullet Boy (2004), deploys a more contemporary sensibility only fleetingly, and usually in scenes of action and violence. An early air-raid sequence is terrifically handled, cleverly presenting the open air and sunshine of the French countryside as a source of terror, while brief glimpses of executions and interrogations stand out starkly against the curiously cosy tone of the film. These moments aside, one feels that Suite Française may play better on television, its mild intrigues and lovingly rendered period trappings seeming a perfect fit for a Sunday evening BBC drama.
Of the supporting cast, Scott Thomas is on autopilot mode, but still walks off with most of her scenes. Others, such as Eileen Atkins and Ruth Wilson, are given less to do, while rising star Margot Robbie is prominently billed, but has just a handful of lines as a rustic wench. That the part registers at all is more down to Robbie’s own peculiar blend of carnality and innocence than to anything in the script. Although the overall pacing is fairly smooth, the underused cast and truncated sub-plots suggest that the film has either been cut down from a much longer running time, or has been substantially reshaped in editing. Further evidence of tinkering comes in the form of a needless voice-over that is presumably intended to underscore Lucile’s emotional awakening, but has the unintended effect of making Williams’ understated central performance seem less expressive than it is.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Run All Night is released 13th March 2015