Irène Némirovsky didn’t manage to complete her three-part novel Suite Française as she was arrested by German forces in occupied France during the Second World War and sent to Auschwitz, where she would die. Her handwritten manuscript was discovered 60 years later, however, and it was published to critical acclaim in 2004, becoming something of a literary sensation at the time and ensuring that a middlebrow screen adaptation was somewhat inevitable. The screenplay draws from the middle book, which is about shifting loyalties in a small, Nazi-occupied French town outside of Paris, so technically the cinematic Suite isn’t a suite at all, though the title is also a reference to a prominent piece of piano music. The instrument and the piece in question are tied to the developing relationships between a few of the major characters here, but they’re also symbolic of the film’s stultifying good taste, which goes some way to ruining it in my eyes even if it doesn’t quite suck the life out of proceedings. This is one of those overwhelmingly British British productions, in which the Queen’s English is spoken well by all and sundry (even though they’re actually supposed to be French or German), the main German soldier cuts a dashing, clean-cut figure and there’s plenty of eye candy for anyone watching, lest they otherwise begin to engage with the notion that war is an ugly, nasty business and lots of people are being brutally blown to pieces elsewhere (and by eye candy I don’t just mean the beauty of the actors involved but also the impressive costumes, sets and landscapes that appear).
Michelle Williams stars as Lucille, a rich girl married to a French soldier who falls in love with a German officer (Matthias Schoenarts). His loyalty to the Fatherland is waning in tandem with Lucille’s loyalty to her husband, but there are plenty of other things going on to make up for what turns into a rather dreary, timid romance between the two: Sam Riley’s limping farmer-turned-resistance-fighter is hiding out after killing an oily German soldier who threatens to rape his wife, Margot Robbie’s farmer’s daughter is sleeping with the enemy just for the hell of it and Kristin Scott-Thomas’s ice maiden landlady is cynically kicking her old tenants out to make room for wealthy refugees fleeing Paris who can afford higher rents. It’s like a soap opera, and Suite Française does at least build into a rather tense, dramatic final act, although like a soap opera episode it ends and you’re none the wiser as to the eventual fate of most of the characters; only with this story we don’t get to tune in again tomorrow to find out more. Is she reunited with him? But what happens to so-and-so? And did that family survive? Etc. etc. It’s all tastefully realised, but it’s sort of like watching World War II as designed by Cath Kidston or Laura Ashley. Even when characters are shot there’s no sign of any blood, presumably in case anyone watching gets mildly queasy. As far as these things go I much preferred Testament Of Youth, in which the longing and suffering of those caught up in a world war is more keenly felt, and the mud and the blood and the wailing isn’t hidden away.
Directed by: Saul Dibb.
Written by: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman. Based on Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Matthias Schoenarts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie.
Cinematography: Eduard Grau.
Editing: Chris Dickins.
Music: Rael Jones.
Running Time: 107 minutes.