Kristin Scott Thomas gives liberating performance in French drama

In screen roles such as her Oscar-nominated turn in The English Patient, Kristin Scott Thomas personifies aristocratic elegance — like a U.K. equivalent to Katharine Hepburn. In reality, Thomas may be English more by birth than by choice. She’s lived and worked in Paris since she was 19 and speaks perfect French. For decades she’s worked in French films such as I’ve Loved You So Long, where her role as Juliette Fontaine still qualifies as casting against type: Thomas plays an ex-con who served 15 years for a crime that seems like the stuff of Greek tragedy.

I’ve Loved You So Long begins with Juliette’s younger sister Le?a (Elsa Zylberstein) greeting her after her release from prison. Léa feels guilty for avoiding contact with Juliette for years and tries to make up for lost time by welcoming Juliette into her home and otherwise trying to reconnect. Meanwhile, Léa’s hostile husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) objects to Juliette living under their roof, while their adopted daughters wonder why they’ve never heard of “Auntie” until now.

Novelist and first-time director Philippe Claudel whets our interest by withholding the particulars of Juliette’s crime, an act seemingly so monstrous it makes Juliette a pariah in her family and professional life. Thomas’ performance paradoxically makes emotional remoteness and grief into magnetic traits. Like openhearted Léa, we gravitate to Juliette even when she’s closed off. Thomas conveys such depths of mourning that Juliette’s unexpected bright moments virtually shine, like when she admits that she likes soccer, or confides to Léa that she had a one-night stand not long after leaving jail. It’s as though Thomas’ elegant persona still lives somewhere in there.

With the guitar music on its soundtrack and fairly obvious literary references to Dostoevsky and others, I’ve Loved You So Long feels more like an American indie film than one of its typical, intellectually rigorous French counterparts. In its soft-spoken way, it nearly follows the Hollywood formula in its gradual build-up to Juliette’s wrenching, tearful speech that reveals her unexpected secret (one that raises as many questions as it answers).

I’ve Loved You So Long spends more time exploring the nature of Juliette’s crime than it does the more basic difficulties of opening oneself to life, to rejoining family and society. If the script’s mystery aspect follows a conventional path, its portrayal of Juliette as she gradually reconnects proves affecting, particularly as Thomas subtly shows how her character thaws and grows at a one-day-at-a-time pace. Thomas’ acting will touch any audience, no matter what language it speaks.