In Review: Suite Française

by Tony Griffiths on 12/03/2015

Suite F

There’s an extraordinary, touching story at the heart of sweeping period romance Suite Française. It’s just not the one that plays out onscreen. For those unacquainted with the novel of the same name, Suite Française begins with Nazi Germany’s occupation of France in World War Two. A platoon of German soldiers arrive at a small, rural village, home to Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is away with the French army, and her wealthy mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Lucile – dutiful but repressed – is introduced to dashing German commander Bruno, whose forced residence at the Angellier mansion inspires a moral conundrum. And one that proves increasingly hard to resist once Bruno reveals himself a sensitive soul in an army of cartoon monsters and, more importantly, a dab hand at the piano (nothing too cheerful, mind). Yes, it’s Romeo and Juliet in World War Two.

If that description sounds a bit blasé it’s only out of frustration. The source material’s narrative kinks should have been easy to iron out for its big screen translation, and yet they’re amplified, creating an insipid melodrama which renders most of its big moments both histrionic and unmoving.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to enjoy. For the most part it looks wonderful, while director Saul Dibb (best-known for The Duchess) wrings much drama from a tragic sub-plot involving the local Mayor, and, most notably, a truly cinematic opening that recalls North by Northwest’s crop-dusting centrepiece.

Similarly, the performances are sound. Michelle Williams injects plenty of humanity into Lucile, Kristin Scott Thomas is on fine form (albeit in the type of role she can play in her sleep) and Matthias Schoenaerts’ Bruno is as conflicted and smouldering as the script asks him to be (which is all the script asks him to be). Ruth Wilson – as villager Madeline fighting the unwanted attentions of the film’s pantomime villain – is particularly engaging.

World War Two has, understandably, proved rich inspiration for cinema. Yet it has become a saturated market, making it increasingly difficult to create something that justifies using the conflict as the basis for entertainment. In that respect, Suite Française falls short. Irene Nemirovsky’s posthumous bestseller is a truly extraordinary story – one that will stay with you far longer than this underwhelming interpretation of her work.

Tony has awarded Suite Française two Torches of Truth 


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