A zookeeper’s sad and empowering story is brought to screen with a terrific performance by Jessica Chastain
World War II, a difficult subject for most yet a story Hollywood always continues to tell. Not to say that reminding people of history is bad; indeed we must be remembered in order to not duplicate this horrific and terrible tragedy. There are plenty of untold stories to be told from many points of view. Hollywood has continually told Holocaust stories from a man’s point of view. The Zookeeper’s Wife is here to show us this terrible tragedy once more but this time with a fresh new twist – a heroic woman’s point of view.
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) owns an incredible zoo where she has devoted her life to caring for animals. Every day she opens her door for people to see the various animals that inhabit the zoo while her husband, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), helps her with filling each creatures’ needs. Being in Poland in 1939, one day, the Nazis bomb the area killing almost all of her animals. As the Zabinski family figures out what is happening to the Jewish in their town, they set out to hide as many people as they can in their zoo.
Jessica Chastain gives a powerhouse performance as this compassion historical figure. She plays her with subtlety, heart, and passion. As it’s set in 1939, Chastain never plays it too much like a modern woman. She mostly sticks to her roots while still being this feminist character. Antonina is the one doing most of the work around the zoo. However, they both play like members of a team in ultimately hiding Jewish people in their basements. The movie’s tense moments come from the interaction with a Nazi officer (Daniel Brühl). She plays the part to make him clueless of the fact that there are Jews hiding in the basement.
The other interactions include the zoo animals which play the part of cheering you up through the movie’s darker moments. At the beginning, the zoo is a beauty to behold in of itself. The big cages and the shots following Chastain on her morning bike ride around the zoo is a nice introduction to all the animals. It was nice to see real animals and animatronics in the movie having seen a lot of movies recently chalk full of CGI. It made this sense of realism that would not have been there otherwise, and the performance that it got out of the people interacting with these animals is something you can only get using real things. The various newborn baby animals looked so genuine and it opened the possibility of being wet and messy just like real newborn babies.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only messy part of The Zookeeper’s Wife. The movie suffers from clumsy editing that confuses the viewer from time to time. The parts that the erratic editing becomes most apparent are when the film wants to convey a time change. The film will cut abruptly and try to show the viewer that time has advanced. It’s messy, and it takes a moment before orienting yourself back to where the movie wants you to be. However, it doesn’t affect the emotional impact The Zookeeper’s Wife delivers with a punch. There are some truly sad and heartbreaking scenes. These scenes continue to be director Nikki Caro’s greatest asset.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, while not as good as other WWII movies, offers a sad yet satisfying tale of a woman who not only devoted her life to animals but risked her life to save Jews. The movie surrounding her is solid, and its strength lies in emotion which is delivered perfectly by Jessica Chastain. It may be just another war movie but the change in perspective and setting makes it something that is worth a watch.
The Zookeeper’s Wife was released on March 31 and is now playing in theaters in Canada and the US