Suite Française, the romantic drama from director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and co-written by Matt Charman, is based on the unfinished book by Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky originally planned to write five novels, but only completed two before her death at Auschwitz in 1942. These first two books in the series have been brought together for this film.
Set in Nazi-occupied France, unhappily married Lucile Angellier is living under the watchful eye of her controlling mother-in-law, whilst they wait for news of her soldier husband. With the arrival of the handsome Nazi Lieutenant Bruno von Falk, assigned to stay at their residence, Lucile finds herself attracted to this mysterious man.
Michelle Williams as Lucile must be given high praise for carrying the film. Williams is in almost every scene, and the narrative follows her relationship with every other character – her mother-in-law, the Lieutenant, local residents – as we see her pulled between her loyalty to the people around her, and the growing feelings she has for Bruno. Her subtle reactions represent her fear of the controlled state she is living in, as wordlessly we follow her emotions.
Matthias Schoenaerts as Bruno is mostly a big, character cliché. He is the ‘good’ Nazi who is sensitive, polite to the French residents in the town and always has a hint of sadness in his eye when he orders his soldiers to do anything. Along with Williams, a lot of his scenes are portrayed with a watery eye never too far away.
As we see these two characters grow closer, albeit slowly, we also see the rising tension between the French locals and the German soldiers. Lucile and Bruno develop their relationship, whilst everyone else becomes one step closer to asking someone if they want to step outside for a fight. In a sense, the film is more successful as a film about a community during a difficult period, instead of a love story. It just about manages to be both.
Madame Angellier, the overbearing mother-in-law, is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. As in everything she is in, Thomas excels in her role; representing the isolated lifestyle that Lucile has been living since her husband has gone, but becoming more compassionate as the film progresses.
There is also a tremendous mix of talented actors in supporting roles, including Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Tom Schilling, Margot Robbie and Alexandra Lara. The plot could be very stifled if the film only followed the relationship between Lucile and Bruno, but we also see her relationship with the other residents. Every character is layered, and therefore memorable, but held back at times by a clunky script.
Filmed on location in Belgium and France, the scenery could almost be a character in itself. The beautiful surroundings feel natural and full of texture. However, the soundtrack can be overbearing, and the Williams voiceover seems unnecessary when we can clearly see how Lucile is feeling at any given moment.
Suite Francaise has everything you would want a period film to have; drama, suspense, romance. The film may not be anything special within its genre, and it seems for the first half of the film we just see Williams sitting around, not doing much. But when it finally gets into the narrative, the film isn’t afraid to be sentimental, and for all the flaws in the storytelling, Suite Française is a very enjoyable film, held up by an excellent cast whose characters are the heart of the film.
Suite Française will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 27th July 2015.
Warning, this trailer is quite spoiler-ish!
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