First, a warning: In the French drama I've Loved You So Long, Kristen Scott Thomas plays a woman who returns to her family after serving a 15-year prison sentence. Many synopses and reviews for the film (though not this one) will specify why she was sent away, but writer-director Philippe Claudel holds off on the revealing that piece of information for quite awhile, and then buries it, elegantly, in a matter-of-fact line of dialogue. Since the film is otherwise a model of simplicity in the plotting department, it's best to approach it with a clean slate, because the major revelations in the story are few and precious. Much like the recent Rachel Getting Married, Claudel's film grapples perceptively with the depth of family ties, which have the power to withstand obstacles that would—and perhaps should—tear any other relationship asunder.
Scott Thomas has been frequently cast as the personification of upper-crust elegance and privilege, but from the moment she first appears here, glumly smoking a cigarette at an airport, it's her modesty that stands out. Having just been sprung from prison, Scott Thomas seeks refuge with estranged sister Elsa Zylberstein until she finds a job and can make her own way in the world. The two haven't really been in contact during Scott Thomas' sentence, and Zylberstein has trouble bringing her into her family, which includes her protective husband Serge Hazanavicius, their two adopted Vietnamese daughters, and her father-in-law (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who went mute after a stroke. There are obviously very serious trust issues to be established, on top of the challenge of Scott Thomas becoming a productive member of society.
Despite the evident tension between the two sisters and between Scott Thomas and Zylberstein's family, I've Loved You So Long effectively sublimates the drama until one volcanic eruption towards the end, when everything is laid out on the table. Claudel's restraint gives the scene tremendous power, even while it also raises questions about why Scott Thomas chooses to withhold a secret that might have eased her transition back into the family. Nevertheless, the film deftly sketches a sibling relationship complicated by obligation, guilt, mistrust, and, not least, an abiding love.