Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh
Director: Niki Caro
Running Time: 127 mins
Synopsis: In 1939 Warsaw, Poland, husband and wife Antonina and Jan Zabinski run the city zoo. Living a charmed and quiet life amongst their prized animals, their world is turned upside down when the Nazi’s begin their invasion. Commandeering their zoo and forced to work with Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Bruhl) they conspire to rescue hundreds of imprisoned Jews in the nearby ghetto right underneath his nose. Based on a true story.
The Zookeeper’s Wife certainly knows how to disarm you. Opening with a softly lit quietly portrayed look at the lives of the Zabinskis. Owners of the popular Warsaw zoo in 1939, they are blissfully happy looking after their exotic wildlife, whilst raising their young son. Jessica Chastain, here landing a faultless Polish accent, has an almost supernatural connection with the creatures as Antonina. Her calmly measured voice and ethereal look seems to hypnotise the elephants, tigers and monkeys, as well as the humans in her presence. Then on September 3rd the beginnings of what would become the largest scale war of our times erupts into Poland shockingly and without warning. It is here that director Niki Caro offsets her audience with graphic and unflinching footage of the initial attack that decimates the helpless animals within the zoo. After only 3/4 mins of chaotic carnage featuring moments likely to make any animal lovers in the crowd feel devastated, it feels like the quaint handsomeness of the opening feel a long time ago.
It is an event very rarely seen in film, the early occupation of the Polish people, and Caro directs it all with horrific clarity but a measured restraint. You don’t actually ever see an animal get hurt but the way she films it you believe you’ve seen a whole lot more. Soon enough the bigger horrors commence, and that is the subsequent rounding up of the large Jewish community, with whom the Zabinski’s are close to. Witnessing the subjugation and humiliation of these people inspires the two of them to act. Although not before a tormented internal battle over whether they should risk their lives, which is lessened by the fact that both of them flip flop very easily. One minute Antonina is hesitant, then in the very next scene she is determined to help, opposed to Jan who starts off determined, then wary, then back to determined again. It’s all meant to portray the confusion of this grandest of decisions, but the speed in which their minds change is a tad frustrating.
What follows is the strongest section of the film as the couple conjure up a scheme to sneak out numerous Jews from the newly formed ghetto via a pig farm newly built within their zoo. This is all given further tension as notable Nazi bigwig Herr Heck takes a keen interest in the zoo. A renowned zoologist given free rein by Hitler to experiment with animal genetics, Heck is another opportunity for Daniel Bruhl to play a monstrous German. Seemingly the go to guy for dickish Nazis (see also Inglourious Basterds) Bruhl has always had something slightly ferocious behind his eyes. No matter how decent and kind he may appear to be, you can always see that something else, something sinister is at play in his head. His character here is not much of a stretch for him, but he layers in some subtle complexity particularly in the latter scenes wherein the love for animals and Antonina push back against his allegiance to the hate-filled political party.
In tackling the persecution of the Jews it is to be expected that the scenes within the ghetto would be hard to watch. Caro works hard to never exploit these moments though, offering fleeting glimpses of brutality. One such scene involving the attack and abuse of a young girl is the most troubling, with it leading to some of the most moving tear-inducing moments as Antonina takes her in and attempts to break down the barriers she puts up in response to the terror. The larger events such as the burning of the ghetto and the concentration camp transports are effectively weighty, although none quite reach the raw potency that Spielberg achieved in Schindler’s List.
There is a slight drag to the middle portions as the plotting begins to thin out in favour of repeated scenes of tense filled rescues, moving depictions of the ghetto horrors and Antonina attempting to placate Heck with mild flirtations. These flirtations irk husband Jan, with the domestic strife this causes feeling frivolous next to the fight for survival the Jewish people are dealing with. Although it is refreshing to see this sort of honesty, in fighting such an important battle for freedom strains are to be expected, and lest we forget this is based on a real couple who no doubt faced immeasurable pressure to succeed. It helps that we like this twosome, and will them to remain strong together against so much horror. The performances both actors give are vital in achieving this result. Johan Heldenbergh gives Jan a weathered emotional determination, with his anger and rage at the complete lack of humanity he witnesses palpably conveyed. Jessica Chastain meets him head on with a forceful yet vulnerable portrayal of a woman who risked so so much to protect those in need. With her timid voice and gentle nature she exudes immense warmth touched with noble sincerity. Being the lead she is given the most dimensions, with supporting players limited to broad strokes which is bluntly effective if a little in need of nuance. Game of Thrones’s Michael McElhatton being the most egregious example of this. His stoic caretaker ever present and reliable but we know little to nothing about his true nature beyond loving the Zabinskis wholeheartedly.
The final parts veer ever so slightly into soap territory. I find it hard to believe that the real events played out in such a Hollywood-like fashion, chase scene and melodramatic plot turns included, but things re-align for a finale that is ultimately hopeful and moving. Niki Caro and writer Angela Workman should be applauded for bringing to life a tale of true heroes, shining ever more light on one of humanity’s darkest hours.
Verdict: It is hard to call fault on a film with such noble intentions and The Zookeeper’s Wife, despite its pacing issues and character flaws, is intelligent graceful filmmaking. The results are searingly emotional, with Jessica Chastain giving a committed vital performance.