THE horrors and tragedy of war are never far away but for the quiet towns of rural France in 1940 they roared right into the peaceful squares and battered down the doors of farms and townhouses, as the Nazi invasion extended its iron grip over every aspect of life.
Suite Francaise, which had a charity screening at Strode Theatre, Street, two days ahead of its UK release, is a film adaptation of the second of two novellas by the French writer Irene Nemirovsky. She was a Jewish novelist who was successful in the 1930s (one of her books was filmed). When war broke out, she and her family moved to Burgundy and converted to Catholicism, but she was captured and died in Auschwitz. Her two young daughters survived – one adopted and the other hidden for the duration of the war.
Nearly 60 years later, the now elderly Denise Epstein opened a box of her mother’s papers after her apartment was flooded. She found what she thought was a diary. She transcribed it and realised it was two novellas – part of a series of five which Nemirovsky had apparently planned. A publisher saw the merit of the manuscripts which were published in 2004 as Suite Francaise, and became an international best-seller.
The film concentrates on the second of the novellas, an achingly sad story of a lonely young wife (Michelle Williams) living with her powerful and wealthy mother-in-law in the small town of Bussy, awaiting news of her husband, Gaston (a prisoner-of-war). After the Nazi occupation and the installation of the Vichy government, a German regiment arrives in Bussy and officers are lodged with various households.
A cultured lieutenant (the compelling Matthias Schoenaerts) is billeted with Mme Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) and gradually a relationship develops between the soldier, Bruno von Falk, a musician and composer, and the sensitive and unhappy young Louise Angellier (Williams). The chemistry between the two stars is electric – the more so because their relationship is hardly put into words and much of the emotion is conveyed through the music, particularly the “Suite Francaise” which Bruno composes on Louise’s piano.
An important sub-plot shows the miserable lives of poor tenant farmers and the razorwire tensions between the invaders and the invaded. The unwelcome attentions of an arrogant young Nazi to a young farmer’s wife is the catalyst for shocking scenes that were to be replicated across rural France (and most of occupied Europe) for the next five years.
Poor Dame Harriet Walter has one of the most unsympathetic roles of her distinguished career as a craven Viscomtesse but the about-to-be-Dame Kristin makes the most of her apparently cold and repressed character to reveal the strength that can lie behind a frozen face and ramrod back. Some reviewers have described Mme Angellier as domineering and even a monster but that misses the complexity of the character or the subtlety of Scott Thomas’s performance.
The strength of the film, directed by Saul Dibb (who directed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), as of the novella, is that the war is not centre-stage. It is the effect of war on ordinary people – soldiers, children, farmers, aristocrats, shop-keepers and restless teenagers – that drives the plot. At its heart is a love story and a poignant study of the conflicts this unbidden love provokes in the protagonists.
Both Dame Harriet and Dame Kristin have Dorset connections – Harriet has a home in the county and Kristin went to school at Sherborne – and the Dorset-based actor Nicholas Chagrin (pictured) plays the parish priest of Bussy.
The preview at Strode Theatre was in aid of the Opus Anglicanum Trust and the screening was introduced by Michael Kuhn (Qwerty Films), one of the film’s producers and chairman of the Wells-based trust which commissions new works and provides financial support for concerts and workshops by Opus Anglicanum, a chamber group of male singers with a narrator.