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Zookeeper's Wife: Jessica Chastain Shines as a Holocaust Hero

By Julian Roman — March 29th, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife is deeply emotional and visceral, but fails to reach the bar set by better examples of the genre. Adapted for the screen by acclaimed director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), the film has tour-de-force performances from Jessica Chastain and Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh. It is the remarkable true story of a Polish couple's courage during World War II. Told from a female perspective, the drama showcases the immense horror and degradation that women suffer during conflict.

Set in the summer of 1939 Warsaw, Antonina (Chastain) and Jan (Heldenbergh) Zabinski run a delightful zoo at the center of the city. They have a young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford, Val Moluku), who helps them care for the animals. The family has a peaceful, idyllic existence with their beloved creatures. Antonina has a natural aptitude with them, impressing everyone with her skill and glamorous beauty. These traits are not unnoticed by the zoo's primary benefactor, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). He harbors a not so secret fondness for Antonina, much to the dismay of Jan.

The Nazis invade Poland in September. They violently round up Jews and incarcerate them in a ghetto. Jan and Antonina are distraught. Their dear friends and colleagues have all been taken. Once the scope of the Nazi atrocities become evident, the couple decides to take action. They formulate an incredibly dangerous and risky plan. They will liberate Jews from the ghetto and hide them in the zoo. Meanwhile, Lutz has become a powerful Nazi official. The Zabinskis use his desire for Antonina as a tool to aid their efforts.

Being an attractive woman in war can lead to heinous crimes. The Zookeeper's Wife holds nothing back in depicting sexual violence and degradation. These scenes are not explicit, but thunderous in their impact. Niki Caro has made a career of showing the strength of women under unbelievable circumstances. The plight of Antonina and the women in her care is told with exceptional clarity. It is the backbone of this story and the film's strongest theme.

The zoo is the center of the action. While we get to see the ghetto and various parts of the city, everything more or less plays out around the zoo. At first, this is a very effective setting. The animals, the Jews being harbored, there is a palpable sense of danger with the secrecy. This is hard to describe, but somehow the film loses that tension towards the third act. We see the Nazis and their evil deeds, but they seem to be keystone cops when it comes to activity at the zoo. This is especially the case with Lutz Heck. He is the antagonist, but we don't see him for long stretches. His advances towards Antonina is alarming, but is diffused when he simply vanishes. The film loses steam in this regard and it detracts from the gravity of the situation.

The lead actors are sublime as a couple. Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh are wonderful together. They run the gauntlet of terror. Every action they take puts their lives at risk. Caro does a fantastic job of showing them in intimate settings. They talk to each other, comfort one another; it's a vibrant display of true love. The bond established becomes even stronger as the war destroys Warsaw. It's incredible to think these people existed and actually pulled off such an epic feat of heroism.

Caro succeeds with her focus on the Zabinskis and their bravery. The Zookeeper's Wife does not have the scope of a Schindler's List or The Pianist. Holocaust dramas are done frequently in Hollywood, so audiences have a measure of what's good and great. From Focus Features, The Zookeeper is certainly good, but not on par with the classics. I guess that's difficult in any genre, but seems more obvious here. The story told is definitely worth seeing.

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