The release of Irène Némirovsky’s novel in 2004 was a landmark occasion, since her manuscripts, written in 1942 in the midst of the second world war, were only examined in 1998 and finally published a whole six years later. Having become a bestseller in France, it was only a matter of time before it found its way to the big screen. It fell to Saul Dibb, director of handsome period film ‘The Duchess’ to do it, and he decides to use a largely English cast for the film, with all French characters speaking English, and any German characters speak English with a German accent, or sometimes even speak German as a means of differentiating the two. It’s a decision that works in the context of the film, and avoids any strange accents or half-hearted attempts at the language, ensuring that it is not a distraction.
Indeed, Dibb’s adaptation feels a lot like the cousin of ‘The Duchess’ in its style, and its very much a film where the set and the surroundings play almost as pivotal a role as the actors themselves. Sure, the glossiness of everything does mean that the film can feel artificial, but then again this was never going to be a gritty war film, playing instead more like a story that happens to be set in the war, rather than one that decides to focus on it in a meaningful way.
Kristin Scott Thomas puts in the film’s strongest performance as the hardy Madame Angellier, and it’s around her that the film is at its strongest. Her presence binds the various plots of the film together, and when she’s not on screen the pretty veneer of the film starts to drop, revealing a film that is really not as complex as it either should be or thinks it is. Both Michelle Williams and Matthias Schoenarts, the two leads, rely heavily on Thomas’ domineering screen presence and are not convincing enough presences to carry the film when she is not around, which is strange considering both of them have considerable acting talent, Shoenarts in particular is destined for a lot of new roles, so it’s disappointing to see unremarkable turns here. Margot Robbie puts in another strong turn to enhance her promising career, but the fact that she’s more memorable than Williams’ main character is a problem.
‘Suite Francaise’ is an effective and sometimes powerful film that may not be as hard-hitting as it could have been, but features enough moments of true emotion and thought to carry it through. It’s a little too delicate and pretty to address the true grittiness of wartime and adequately show the difference between the classes in small French settlements quite as it wants to, but it’s definitely still moving and worthwhile.