There have been a number of films made about the male heroes of World War 2. From the soldiers who stormed Normandy to the heroes who helped rescue some of the Jewish people from the Nazis, there have been numerous stories about the men who helped save lives during that horrendous war on the big screen. The Zookeeper’s Wife is different. Instead of focusing on a male hero, it focuses on the wife of a zookeeper who helps protect Jewish people from the Nazis in Poland.
Based on a true story, the feature opens in Warsaw, Poland in the summer of 1939. Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski, a warm-hearted animal lover. Each morning, the free-spirited Zabinski rides her bicycle to open the zoo’s doors. Her affection for the animals is unquestionable. She loves them and the feeling is mutual.
A devastating bombing occurs as the German army invades Poland and soon enough, Nazis have camped out at the zoo. At first, Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) don’t realize that the forced migration of the Jewish population is much darker than it seems. When they finally understand what’s at stake, they set up their zoo to serve as a sanctuary for local Jewish residents who need protection or who are looking for a safe place during their travels.
The zoo serves as that haven.
Directed by Niki Caro, the feature quickly establishes Antonina as the film’s heroine. Through a delicate sequence depicting her struggling to save a baby elephant’s life to an optimistic scene showing Antonina opening the zoo, the movie develops her character sweetly before the war comes to the zoo. When the bombing hits, the director painfully reveals the depth of the damage. During these moments, Chastain subtly reveals her character’s heartbreak.
Much of the screenplay, which was written by Angela Workman and adapted from the book by Diane Ackerman, relies on Chastain’s performance. The actress is forced to craft a character who oftentimes must keep her emotions and her feelings hidden from the outside world. Like in Zero Dark Thirty, the actress masterfully pulls this off letting the audience understand Antonina’s actions even when her husband seemingly can’t.
Her husband becomes openly jealous when Antonina begins a “friendship” with Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), Hitler’s zoologist. Heck, a fellow animal lover, confides in Antonina (“I expect this war to be over very soon,” he says in one of their first meetings). The actor makes a commendable villain here never making him into a caricature but oftentimes showing the character’s volatility, that ultimately reveals his true nature.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is painful and oftentimes hard to watch but Chastain keeps the audiences with her throughout the whole ordeal. The film relies on her subtle performance and she pulls it off. At times, some of the supporting characters aren’t as full developed as they could be (including the family cook, who oftentimes seemed like an unnecessary addition to the story) but for most of the movie’s running time, the script superbly tells this incredible true story.
Review by: John Hanlon