"Sarah's Key" is a film that ranges from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.

It's an important film that, despite a parallel story line that dips into melodrama, should not be missed.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julia, a contemporary American journalist living in Paris where she works for a magazine. She investigates the little-known expulsion of some 13,000 Jews to Nazi death camps.

The shame for the nation of France is that this occurred in Paris at the direction of authorities there who were collaborating with the Nazis. It is known as the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. It took place in 1942. The Jews were kept in an enclosed velodrome before being transported to concentration camps.

Through flashbacks, the story of young Sarah Starzynski (an extraordinary Mélusine Mayance) is told. When she is swept up with her mother and father by the authorities, Sarah hastily hides her younger brother in a hidden closet, locking the door and taking the key.

At the concentration camp, Sarah and her mother are separated from the father. Then, Sarah is separated from her mother. Her goal is to get back to Paris and free her brother.

Thus is set up a "ticking clock" plot that keeps the viewer's rapt attention and gives a portion of the film the sense of a taut thriller. We won't play spoiler here and give away this aspect of the plot.

Meanwhile, Julia is uncovering more and more information about Sarah and her family, including a connection Julia and her husband may have to the family's apartment. Here also, details won't be provided lest it ruin your viewing experience.

There's a subplot involving Julia, her marriage to a workaholic husband and her desire to have a child. Again, more information would diminish the film's impact for you.

Gilles Paquet-Brenner, directing from a screenplay he wrote with Serge Joncour based on the best-selling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, does his best to balance the two plot lines.

However, the truth is not only stranger, but often stronger, than fiction. So, the circumstances of Sarah's plight take emotional precedence over the contemporary plot.

Also, as young Sarah, Mayance is such a strong screen presence that her absence from the screen makes you still recall her even when her adult self (played memorably by Charlotte Poutrel) is on the screen.

Much the same can be said of Kristin Scott Thomas. When she is on screen, she owns every scene she is in.

She is such a believable actress, with nary a false emotion revealed, that other actors in scenes with her pale in comparison. This is especially true with Aidan Quinn, who plays Sarah's son, now an adult. Quinn is quite good, but opposite Scott Thomas, his approach lacks certain subtleties.

One senses script problems in the third act and the director struggling to resolve them. Though this plot line is perhaps too glibly wrapped up, it perhaps was necessary because of the unrelentingly horror and sadness of the majority of the film.

The screenplay also allows the film-makers to make the point about the need for each nation to tell its stories, good or bad, to prevent a collective rewriting of history.

On balance, "Sarah's Key" is one of the most talked-about films of the early fall potential Oscar nominees season. It is required viewing for students of history and film buffs.

"Sarah's Key," MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) for thematic material including disturbing situations involving the Holocaust; Genre: Drama; Run time: 1 hr., 45 min.; distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Box Office, Aug. 19: "The Help" got some help from four dismal openings, to rise from No. 2, with $20.4 million for a $71.8 million total after two weeks.

It was the first time since January that a film moved into first place after not opening at No. 1 ("True Grit" rose to No. 1 after opening lower. Previously, "The Blind Side" also pulled off a belated No. 1 placement.).

2. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," $16.3 million, $133.7 million, three weeks; 3. "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D," $12 million, opening; 4. "Conan the Barbarian," $10 million, opening; 5."The Smurfs," $8 million, $117.7 million, four weeks; 6. "Fright Night," $7.9 million, for the weekend, $8.3 million, since opening; 7. "Final Destination 5," $7.7 million, $32.3 million, two weeks; 8. "30 Minutes or Less," $6.3 million, $25.8 million, two weeks; 9. "One Day," $5.1 million, opening; 10. "Crazy, Stupid, Love," $4.9 million; $64.4 million, four weeks; 17. "Sarah's Key," $783,000 (on only 201 screens), $3 million, five weeks

Unreel, Aug. 26:

"Our Idiot Brother," R: Paul Rudd gets out of jail after a drug arrest. Homeless and unemployed, he couch-surfs the homes of his three sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer), wreaking mayhem. Comedy ensues.

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," R: A young girl is required to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), where she discovers creatures and not only under her bed.

"Columbiana," PG-13: A young woman (Zoe Saldana), raised in the United States, wants to settle the score with a Colombian drug lord who executed her parents.

Read previous movie reviews at www.tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein at: pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes