Fiona Leckerman finds herself in two minds about the film Suite Francaise – a Second World War romance about forbidden love, which was released last week
With such a fascinating backstory, it was hard not to have high expectations of Suite Française, the film adaption of Irène Némirovsky’s bestselling novel of the same name. The story charts the German occupation of a small French village, fictionally named Bussy, at the start of the Second World War and portrays the French farmers and villagers coping with their new inhabitants.
The heroine, Lucile Angellier is played with a perfect stillness by Michelle Williams, while Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a formidable performance as her mother-in-law Madame Angellier, proving there’s nothing like a dame to add gravity to a character.
Both women’s subtlety is of real value to the narrative, which is concerned with them housing a German Lieutenant, Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts).
Despite her better judgement, Lucile begins to falls in love with the officer, finding common ground in their love of music.
Von Falk, a composer before enlisted in the army, plays piano through the lonely evenings and as his music fills the house, we see Lucile gradually becoming mesmerised by this forbidden man. His kindness, uncharacteristic of Nazis, is unsettling. Should Lucile trust him?
The narrative is slow, with drawn-out shots of Williams’ eyes staring longingly through doors that are slightly ajar.
There are brief skirmishes with a shot Nazi and, towards the end, the plot twists to include a manhunt, an escape and the revelation that there is a Jew in the village.
We watch Lucile transform from a meek woman to one of bravery and strength, just as Madame Angellier moves from a cold and uncaring person to one of depth and kindness.
With lovely costume detailing and spot-on location choices, Suite Française reimagines what may have happened in many small European villages throughout the war, and works well to convey a climate of fear. Némirovsky’s handwritten manuscript is seen under the titles at the end of the film, adding great poignancy to a story that had been lying untold for 50 years in the suitcase she had entrusted to her daughter as she was taken off to her death in Auschwitz.
There is a sadness that runs throughout the film, characterised by the haunting score, and although there are elements of Némirovsky’s life reflected, they do not overshadow the narrative, which feels by the end as if it has only just begun. • Check listings for nearest screenings