It’s an extraordinary true-story Holocaust drama brought to the screen by director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), centred on a Polish couple that provided shelter for 300 Jewish refugees beneath the Warsaw Zoo during the German invasion. Although dealing with a particularly grim subject matter, there’s an undeniable charm to The Zookeeper’s Wife by way of Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane, Zero Dark Thirty) in the titular role. Chastain stars as Antonina Żabiński, who ran the Warsaw Zoo with her husband Jan, played by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh. The film is structured on the simple notion that compassion, love, and bravery can conquer all – even more so, when animals are a key part of the tale.
Based on the nonfiction book penned by Diane Ackerman, which drew source material from Antonina’s real-life diaries, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels reminiscent of the various World War II films that have come before it. Think Schindler’s List, but rather mildly. There are key scenes of Antonina’s husband, with caution, taking Jewish refugees out of the Warsaw ghetto into the zoo (which, early in the film, becomes an armory for Nazi soldiers). Antonina assists in creating disguises, leading a nocturnal sleeping schedule to avoid army detection, all of which depict a relentless mission to keep the refugees from harm at all costs. It’s a notable portrayal of humanism, and mostly where Antonia’s love for all are concerned, it’s the strength of this character that carries the weight of the film through some of its darkest moments: “Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts,” she says at one point.
However, the script often falls flat in addressing any real context for the characters, even if the tense buildup throughout the film does keep you guessing; will our heroes eventually get caught? If so, how will the heroism displayed by our protagonists come to an end? Our central villain in this story, Daniel Brühl’s Dr. Lutz Heck – “Hitler’s zoologist”, does well to provide a constant sense of unease, developing in a relationship that initially has him starting out as an ally of the Żabiński family. Unfortunately, a number of scenes depicting his bizarre infatuation with Antonina seem rather unnecessary and forced.
It’s mostly a pretty film to look at, and this is especially clear upon the film’s introductory sequence in which Antonina is seen riding her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo, in between shots of her animals. The film pulls at your heartstrings – surely in scenes surrounding the Holocaust, but also in early moments when Antonina risks her own life to save a strangulated baby elephant. There’s an air of hope and freedom to these initial sequences, but of course, they are fleeting, where the majority of the story is well supported by the risks taken by its protagonists.
Overall, Caro’s direction for The Zookeeper’s Wife certainly appears more demanding than her previous works, delivering a feature which holds true to its source material, and rounded off with a commendable lead performance from Chastain, who gives it her all – even with that Polish accent.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10