|'the characterisation , in partnership with the terrible voiceover contributes to the fairy tale aspect of what should be a more complex, serious and heartfelt piece'|
Adapted from the Irène Némirovsky novel of the same name, Suite Française eventually reveals itself to be too obsessed by its protagonist's voice to structure itself into a film of much meaning.
Written around 1942, the novel lay undiscovered until Némirovsky's daughters unearthed the manuscript for eventual publication in 2004. As such, the text offers a rather wonderful delayed look back into the past, delivered as a contemporary piece, an effect many novels both written and published in recent years have attempted to capture.
Writer/director Saul Dibb attempts to relay this feeling to his audience by way of voiceover from protagonist Lucile (Michelle Williams) and therein seals at least part of his film's fate. Lucile's interdicts are rarely anything other than devices to state the obvious about what's happening or how she is feeling. Not all voiceovers are like this, but we do seem currently to be in a reverse golden age for the voiceover (see, recently: Narcos, Legend). Time and time again we are told by Lucile how she is feeling, despite having seen exactly the same thing happen in a previous scene. It ruins the film's visual impact and leaves you feeling not unlike you are in the presence of a very simplistic tale indeed.
That effect is heightened by the characterisation which, without the voiceover, would probably survive without blemish, but with it contributes to the fairy tale aspect of what should be a more complex, serious and heartfelt piece. Most criminally underserved is Kristin Scott Thomas, as Lucile's evil mother-in-law, Madame Angellier. Depicted as a one-note tyrant, Madame's sweeping evil-isms are at first difficult to believe, later graduating to feeling matronly, as Lucile and German love interest Bruno von Faulk (Matthias Schoenaerts), sneak around under windows.
It's not all bad however and Dibb's occasionally heart-fluttering and layered story does occasionally emerge from underneath some of its more problematic aspects. The final third, for example, sends Lucile into new territory in defence of Benoit (a miscast Sam Riley) and his wife Madeleine (Luther's Ruth Wilson). It's a smart and natural move, completely un-telegraphed by events which passed before it. Von Faulk, meanwhile, gets to keep his pacifist characterisation, in the face of increasing conflict, marking a success for Suite Française's ability to handle people, which at least partly balances out its failures.