An all-star cast and a sweeping wartime story should have been the stuff of little gold statuettes. However, the fact that this well-meaning but ultimately mediocre romance didn’t even get a look in, should speak volumes… unlike Michelle Williams, who stars in the film but plays it as a virtual mute.
She isn’t the real problem here though. The book on which the film is based, is much-loved and the story of how it came to be published is far more involving than what we see on screen. The predictability of it all and the seemingly sedate action belie the incredible drama that must have been present during the writing of the unfinished novel.
As World War II rages, a small French town is about to be overrun by the occupying Nazis forces. Lucille Angellier (Michelle Williams) awaits news of her husband, who has been fighting against the Germans on the field of battle. Her intimidating mother-in-law, Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas), tries to keep things ticking along by collecting rent money for their estate from impoverished farmers. As the invading tanks roll in, the town are forced to welcome soldiers into their homes to keep some semblance of peace and normality. Commander Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenaerts) takes up residence in the Angellier home, while he completes his task of rooting out any factions of resistance. Lucille and Bruno initially try to ignore one another, but are soon drawn in by their shared love of music. With the prying eyes of an entire town, as well as a vicious army, on them, the pair try to hide their romance against all odds.
Although the outlines of the novel on which the film was based were found and published in completed form by the family of Irène Némirovsky, the story still feels unfinished. The book can transcend most of these issues with the sheer power of the written word, but director Saul Dibb fails to match that with rather flat and unimaginative set-ups. His previous films, Bullet Boy and The Duchess, were powerful but Suite Francaise lacks any real impact.
Williams plays the central character as she has done in many films before. Her brooding intensity works well in modern settings such as Blue Valentine or Take This Waltz, but this approach feels too contemporary to get across the struggles Lucille must have been experiencing. The film livens up when depicting the romantic side of things, but everything else is emotionless.
Some of the other casting choices also fail to impress. Kristin Scott Thomas is an obvious choice for the dour Madame Angellier, and Matthias Schoenaerts does well as the sensitive soldier who still commits unspeakable atrocities in the name of war, but what exactly is Margot Robbie doing in this film?
She looks like she has stepped off a 1970’s film shoot, complete with an inexplicable afro, with only a few carefully placed spots of mud trying to convince you she is am impoverished farmhand struggling to live on meagre rations. It adds to the feeling that a few too many lazy decisions were made in the production of this film.
This could have been a sweeping epic romance, or perhaps a gritty story of the human spirit triumphing over evil. Instead Suite Francaise tries to manufacture a place between the two, and that is its ultimate failing.