Overview: A married couple decides to do the right thing in the most difficult moment, sheltering fleeing Jews in their zoo during the Holocaust. Focus Features; 2017; Rated PG-13; 124 minutes.
Beauty Contrasted: The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on the book of the same name written by Diane Ackerman, covers some well-trodden ground with a new perspective. There have been, of course, many films set during the Holocaust. With The Zookeeper’s Wife, the major immediate draw here, before the performances even, is the unusual setting. As the title indicates, the majority of this film takes place at the Warsaw Zoo. The opening of the film takes time to focus on the beauty of the animals and the idyllic life of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinksi (Johan Heldenburgh). These sequences are not simply a joy to watch, but they also give the audience some important character moments, particularly the opening tour of the zoo, which shows not only Antonina’s love of the animals but also her willingness to get her hands and feet dirty to take care of the animal inhabitants and her family. Beyond capturing the beauty of the zoo, these moments, directed by Niki Caro, also serve the purpose of stark comparison to the gritty, harrowing experience of the Warsaw Ghetto just beyond the gates of the Zabinski home. The tenderness and loving nature of that first act of the film illustrates just how frustrating and terrifying the loss of normalcy will be after the Blitzkrieg.
Another Phenomenal Performance: The quality of The Zookeeper’s Wife should not ever be discussed without first mentioning its lead actress, Jessica Chastain. One of our most treasured working actors, she again delivers a stunning performance. Despite working with a thick accent, the humanity of Antonina shines through, which is no small feat, given the high emotion necessary in this type of story. Although the character defined through the film’s title by her work and spousal status, she is much more than that. There is a delicate balance at play here, which cements Antonina as a strong character while staying true to gender roles and norms of the time. Also, going in to the film, the audience expects her to make the “right” decisions, as she is the title character in a World War II holocaust drama. However, she convincingly struggles with doing the right thing in a moral, broader sense of humanity versus the safe or smart thing to do for her and her family. Much like Miss Sloane from last year, in the hands of another actress, this film would likely fall flat on its face. But with Chastain, the journey feels effortless and real. Caro clearly knows that this is Chastain’s film through and through. Every moment she is on camera, she is at the center, the calm in the storm. Even the opening credits focus on her form, shown in glamorous old-Hollywood soft lighting, as the title drifts into the center of the audience’s view.
Unexpected Depth: In the trailers for the film, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) appears to be a simple scenery-chewing antagonist. Surprisingly, in execution of the film, he is a nearly complete character, with his own desires, goals, and life outside of the Nazi party. Some of the moments that showcase this are a bit heavy-handed but it is still preferable over the typical one-dimensional villain. The film also returns too often to the Warsaw Ghetto. Its goal is honorable—to have us understand the dire straits involved, even for characters we only meet once or twice—but some of these moments, as well as an awkwardly contrived set of scenes involving the Zabinski’s son, slow the process down just a bit too much.
A Difficult Watch: As with any film about the Holocaust, there are some scenes that are difficult to watch. Violence towards children, animals, and general disregard for human life are represented in the script. However, the director, seemingly quite aware of the emotions provoked by these scenes, opts to only imply most violence, with much of it happening off screen. Most of the emotion the audience must process comes in the aftermath of this violence and is mirrored in the strong performances from Chastain, Bruhl, and Heldenburgh.
Overall: The Zookeeper’s Wife is a slightly uneven but moving film about the Holocaust that shows the beauty of love for our fellow humans, with performances that keep this story of heroism and triumph grounded.
Featured Image: Focus Features