Film Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

With the story of Antonina Zabinski, a real-life World War II-era Polish woman who saved the lives of hundreds, Niki Caro’s gorgeous drama favors intimacy over grand moments and gracefully honors life in all forms.
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There are certain cinematic roles that are undeniably meant for a specific actor. The little-known real-life World War II-era heroine Antonina Zabinski, the lead character of The Zookeeper’s Wife, is one such part for the prolific Jessica Chastain, who has proved time and time again there is no personality, fictional or real, contemporary or period, she can’t enliven onscreen. In this majestic yet intimate wartime drama from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), Chastain plays Zabinski—a gifted animal caregiver, the devoted wife of a zookeeper and a loving mother—with passion and warmth. She slips into the role—a complex, delicate woman who helps save the lives of hundreds of Jews—effortlessly, with otherworldly grace.

Angela Workman’s opulent, sturdy script (which she adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name) first introduces us to Antonina and her husband Dr. Jan Zabinski (The Broken Circle Breakdown’s Johan Heldenbergh) in 1939, before the horrors of the war find them in their sacred haven, filled with wild animals Antonina looks after with the same compassion and attention she provides to her children. She starts her every day at the zoo by cordially welcoming the guests into the grounds and keeping an eye on the animals’ wellbeing. But when the war closes in on the family—a merciless attack destroys the zoo—the couple find themselves left with no other option but to close their doors. Meanwhile, a Nazi zoologist named Lutz Heck (an understated Daniel Brühl, quietly frightening) comes into the picture. With an ambition to develop a new kind of breeding program and a dangerously growing affection for Antonina, Lutz becomes a persistent threat in the lives of the Zabinskis, as well as that of countless Jewish people they hide in their zoo’s now-emptied underground cages and tunnels.

Much of The Zookeeper’s Wife’s tension comes from the relationship between Antonina and Lutz. Once the war enters her city, we watch as Antonina transforms her intuition into bravery and utilizes her deeply developed instincts to control Lutz and keep him at a safe distance. Chastain captures Antonina’s competing inner battles fluently, as her roles as a wife, mother and most importantly “host” of vulnerable lives inevitably intersect and clash. Caro’s empathetic lens, as well as Workman’s wise script, underscore her growing complexity, which Chastain skillfully honors.

As Antonina’s household becomes filled with more guests she aims to protect from the Warsaw ghetto until they safely flee the country, The Zookeeper’s Wife builds an intriguing metaphor. It closes the gap between the two species, animal and human, conveying that we are not all that different and how we can bring comfort to one another. This is a tricky tightrope to walk on: When the backdrop is the Holocaust, it poses the potential danger of undercutting the human tragedy with whimsy. But Caro pulls it off gracefully, as she and Workman insist on making intimacy their focus: amongst the family, between humans, as well as humans and animals when appropriate. The emotional strength of and the impending tension in The Zookeeper’s Wife directly come from this intimate approach (which epics with scale sometimes sidestep): We often feel like we’re peeking into private moments we’re perhaps not supposed to see and being let in on Antonina’s secret. In one of the film’s most emotionally affecting scenes exemplifying this approach, Antonina manages to connect with a shy, traumatized Jewish girl with the help of a sweet rabbit. And in an especially nerve-racking sequence, she fearfully manipulates Lutz with her feminine charms while unknowingly being watched by her husband. In perhaps the most memorable moment, one that defines her character early on, she saves the life of a wild animal, establishing what she’s capable of.

Meanwhile, Caro’s film never loses sight of the massive war and human tragedy happening outside. The film’s vast scope and production values frequently impress. But Caro uses this grand scale not simply to generate astonishment, but to create a necessary, believable frame to surround her delicate story. Each piece in The Zookeeper’s Wife­—from Suzie Davies’ stunning production design to Andrij Parekh’s artful cinematography—feels like a vital building block for this deceptively conventional wartime drama that is anything but.

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