It’s a common failing of films adapted from beloved books. The fervent desire to be “faithful” to the work leads to fear that you’ll leave something important out.
The resulting film feels truncated, abridged. Time simply runs out.
That’s the feeling one gets from “Suite Francaise,” an all-star World War II in occupied France film based on a novel Irène Némirovsky wrote early the war, hid away and never published during her lifetime. She was Jewish and died in a concentration camp.
Do you have the gall to trim it for time, edit it down? Neither did the folks filming it. That, and the film’s suppressed, underplayed romance hamper what could have been an awards contender back in 2015, rendering it chillier than it might have been.
Michelle Williams is our heroine, Lucille, though she hardly feels that way. She married into money and comfort, even though the invasion of France in 1940 means her husband is away, fighting. Living with her imperious, greedy mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas, perfect) is the cost of this security.
France falls, and suddenly Madame Angellier‘s trips to various properties, squeezing rent out of tenant farmers, seems trivial. But with new masters come a new angle to the status quo. Some will do well, some will have food and fuel to hoard and some will starve.
And old scores will be settled by denunciation, anonymous letters to the German authorities who occupy the little town of Bussy.
As Lucille’s earthy, farm wife neighbor Madeleine (Ruth Wilson, dazzling as always) says, “You want to know what people are truly made of, start a war.”
An officer is billeted in the Angellier’s chateau. Lt. Bruno von Falk is handsome, and in a town with no able-bodied young men left, this sudden influx of blond Aryans who like the wash up, shirtless, at the town fountain or group skinny dip in the nearby ponds, are a temptation.
As we know Margot Robbie (in curls) plays one of the overripe farmgirls, we can guess one woman who will be tempted. As Matthias Schoenaerts plays Lt. von Falk, we know Lucille will be another.
The boorish, plundering Huns (Tom Schilling plays another Lieutenant, more standard-issue sadist) leave the townspeople afraid and appalled. Bruno, who asks for access to the family piano because it turns out he’s a composer, is very quick to distance himself from his compatriots.
“I have nothing in common with these people.”
The story has many melodramatic intrigues, the ways the town judges Lucille for sleeping with the enemy, the ways she manipulates that relationship to be of service to her fellow townspeople. Sam Riley, for instance, plays Madeleine’s defiant, crippled farmer husband, a communist who rubs the Nazis and the upper class folk in town the wrong way and is sure to need protection, over and over again. That material works as well as it usually does in a convincing WWII drama.
But the central romance earns short shrift, with all these characters to service and all those story lines to get in.
It doesn’t help that Williams’ Lucille doesn’t give herself over to the passion and never quite sells us this “relationship.” Schoenaerts broods over just what he might be putting on the line, but Williams is so cool that we don’t buy into the risks taken.
This disconnect is most obvious in Williams’ scenes with Wilson, of TV’s “The Affair” and such other films as “Dark River.” Williams narrates and ruminates, Wilson will break your damned heart in just a single scene.
And you sure as shooting would know if Wilson was playing a woman headstrong enough to rebel against the mother-in-law, and against her neighbors and countrymen because of the fatal attraction of a brutally handsome but tender man.
The smothered affair and the abrupt nature of the climax don’t so much ruin “Suite Francaise” as make it far less than it could have been. It’s a sturdy period piece that should have set off sparks, instead.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenaerts, Kristin Scott Thomas, Margot Robbie, Tom Schilling
Credits:Directed by Saul Dibb, script by Saul Dibb and Matt Charman, based on the Irène Némirovsky novel. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:47