The difficulty in telling WWII stories about the Holocaust has been and always will be staying true to the people whose lives are being depicted. But there has come a new problem, and that's finding stories that do more than just show the horrors of genocide. Since Schindler's List we've also seen more than a few films about those who risked their own lives to shelter others from the Nazi death camps. One of the amazing things about this time period is that these tales of personal sacrifice are seemingly endless, and The Zookeeper's Wife is one of the most unique and decidedly human.
Jessica Chastain leaves another indelible mark with her performance as Antonina Zabinska, who along with husband Jan (The Broken Circle Breakdown's Johan Heldenbergh) live a simple life running the Warsaw Zoo. It's clear right away that Antonina has a special way with animals; she has a connection with them and they trust her. In one of her first acts, we see her reviving a newborn elephant that has suffocated. She allows the animals into her home to run free like part of the family. Her morning hasn't begun until her morning run through the zoo alongside the racing ostrich. This empathy is something she has with everyone who enters their zoo, and Antonina seems to be passing that along to their young son, as well. With the threat of war looming, Jan is concerned and wants his family to evacuate, but Antonina refuses. When the Nazis invade, and bombs tear apart their zoo in an absolutely surreal, horrifying scene of dead, dying, and fleeing animals, the Zabinskas' lives are thrown upside down.
Showing that humanity can shine in an inhumane world, the Zabinskas' pick themselves up and begin using the remains of their zoo as a shelter for Jews, and a waystation to those fleeing Poland. Antonina is shown to be a fiercely determined woman with a protective spirit, while Jan is the "dirt under the fingernails" guy. When former friend Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) becomes Hitler's personal zoologist, forcing them to turn the zoo into a pig farm, Jan and Antonina's plan becomes more treacherous. While Jan drives into town under the pretense of securing garbage for the pigs, then returning with stowaways hidden beneath said garbage, Antonina is left at home to care for their visitors. Not only that, but she's always under Heck's lecherous gaze, forcing her to play along with his desires just to keep the peace. It isn't lost on anybody that the Nazi running a pig farm is also quite the pig himself.
Directed by Niki Caro in her finest film since Whale Rider, the New Zealand filmmaker has once again received some of the best work of her lead actress's career. Caro has this gift for highlighting her stars' most special qualities: Keisha Castle-Hughes' pride and strength in Whale Rider; Charlize Theron's toughness in North Country; and now Chastain's humanity. If there's a problem it's that Jan and Antonina are such fundamentally good people that we don't see much of an arc for them. They're as good at the end as they were at the beginning. And any attempts to darken them, so to speak, like when Heck's flirtations lead to jealous accusations by Jan, they don't come across as credible. This is based on a true story adapted from Diane Ackerman's book, so maybe that stuff did happen, but it doesn't pass muster on the screen. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine two people more perfectly suited for one another than the Zabinskas. It must be hard to find a mate who is cool with letting a lion cub sleep in the same bed as their child.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5