Despite boasting a talented cast the big screen adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s bestseller falls rather flat. The story of how the book came to be is unfortunately more fascinating than what was presented onscreen. Némirovsky, a Ukrainian-Jewish writer, had started to write a five-part wartime love saga in 1940, but was captured and died in Auschwitz in 1942. Her daughters discovered the first two self-contained novellas of this story in the 1990s and released them in 2004 to widespread acclaim.
The story is set in the small French town of Bussy and centres on Lucile (played by Michelle Williams) who lives with her disdainful mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) while Lucile’s husband (through an arranged marriage) is in the army. As the Madame scornfully collects rent we are introduced to a number of other characters including Margot Robbie’s Celine and the Labaries, played by Ruth Wilson and Sam Riley. As the Nazis sweep across France refugees from Paris arrive in the village, followed shortly by the Germans themselves. As the conquerors, the Germans take temporary lodgings in the conquered town, which will inevitably lead to a lot of unease. The Angelliers’ house becomes home to the handsome and sensitive Bruno van Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts). Lucile is drawn to Bruno’s unfinished piano composition (namely the titular ‘Suite Française’) and as the poster suggests, the pair’s shared love of music may lead to a bit more.
There are aspects of this film to admire, foremost of which is the socio-political dimension of the story. The changing dynamic between the landed gentry and their tenants, as well as the effect of the occupation upon the situation, is handled with intelligence and complexity. Characters who initially appeared almost like two-dimensional caricatures gain real complexity very quickly. Some of the supporting cast does impress, in particular the aforementioned Labaries, as well as the Viscount and Viscountess who share arguably the most touching scene in the entire movie. Furthermore, as with director Saul Dibb’s last period piece, The Duchess, the production design is beautiful and is complimented by Alexandre Desplat’s score (although arguably it does occasionally drift into overly sentimental territory).
The problem is that the film’s essential focus is this romance which is woefully short of any chemistry. Whilst this can partially be blamed on some clunky dialogue, it must also be said that neither Williams nor Schoenaerts are anywhere near their best. As a result a large proportion of the movie fails to amount to much more than a wartime soap-opera with the audience neither believing nor investing in the couple. The film is also not helped by a horribly unnecessary use of voice-over, through which Lucile spells out to the audience thoughts and observations which are blindingly obvious. The ending is also rather abrupt, although given the unfinished nature of the work that is to be expected.
Overall, there are undoubtedly some positives to garner from watching Suite Francaise and arguably those in search of a romantic trip to the cinema could do far worse (Fifty Shades is still playing) but on the whole the film left me unsatisfied and disappointed.