Kristin Scott Thomas brings such a flinty, coiled intensity to her role as a middle-aged woman newly released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence in I've Loved You So Long that she damn near burns a hole through the screen. Cautiously navigating the particulars of an outside world she left long ago, Scott Thomas' Juliette almost seems like an alien being when kid sister Lea (the excellent Elsa Zylberstein) picks her up at the airport at the start of the film.
For a while, most of Juliette's overdetermined actions - making small talk with her young nieces, interviewing for a job she's clearly overqualified for, just getting through the day like normal folk do - seem to take place in slo-mo. It's all going to take some getting used to. And writer-director Philippe Claudel is only too happy to give Scott Thomas all the time she needs to allow the audience and the other characters to warm up to her spectral presence. Making a quasi mystery out of Juliette's crime (she killed someone - but who and what were the circumstances?) could have cheapened a lesser movie, yet Claudel lets the details gradually filter through.
By the time Juliette reveals the whole truth behind her incarceration, it's like a splash of cold water in the face, and one of the year's great movie moments. In the type of role that Joan Crawford would have killed to play back in the '50s, Scott Thomas delivers a revelatory, career-redefining performance. Best known for British period pieces like The English Patient and Gosford Park, the mercurial Scott Thomas throws herself into the maelstrom of Juliette's tortured, hanging-by-a-thread existence with such implacable grace and dignity that it's impossible not to be moved.