For decades filmmakers have plowed the dark and savage subject of the Holocaust. Countless movies have been made documenting the heartbreaking atrocities as well as self-sacrificing acts of valor. There are some who feel we are given too many of these films (a form of Holocaust movie fatigue perhaps). It’s a sentiment I can’t say I share especially when filmmakers continue to find deeply human stories and experiences to share.
Such is the case for Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, this story of Polish couple Jan and Antonina Żabiński is mostly a fact-based account set during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Ackerman’s book leaned heavily on the diaries of Antonina Żabiński. Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman are careful to keep the same authenticity in their telling.
The film begins just before the September 1, 1939 Nazi invasion. In its idyllic opening scene Antonina (Jessica Chastain) glowingly rides her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo which she operates with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). She makes her way to the front gate where people have gathered. She opens the zoo and greets the visitors as they enter.
This opening scene sets up the inevitable clash that comes when the Nazis invade Poland. The zoo is ravaged by aerial bombers and like Warsaw is soon under Nazi occupation. Seeking a way to keep their zoo and with practically no animals left, Jan turns to pig farming as a way to support the German war effort. But in truth it’s a guise to hide the Żabiński’s true conviction – to save as many Jews as they can and right under the Nazi’s noses, particularly that of German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl).
On the surface Workman’s script doesn’t place a heavy focus on the horrors that took place. We do get glimpses and often quite potent ones. Yet some feel the film doesn’t go far enough in its depictions of the atrocities. In reality there were quieter stories that required just as much heroism despite garnering little attention. Workman is rightly content to stay within her narrative bounds.
Caro’s direction works much the same. She doesn’t anchor her film in a tortuous visual representation. To the film’s benefit she’s clearly not interested in meeting common war movie expectations. Instead there is a soulful grace to her presentation that oozes empathy yet still manages to be tense and harrowing.
Most importantly both Caro and Workman wisely lean on their biggest strength – Jessica Chastain. She gives us an earnest and unassuming Antonina with a strong moral conviction that drives her heroism. Chastain masterfully juggles her character’s fortitude and stoicism with human elements of fear and uncertainty. It’s a delicate balance that makes this portrait of courage all the more inspiring. Chastain’s work is deserving of some genuine Oscar consideration.
Despite its many positives the film’s final act is a bit bumpy. The story darts forward in time more than once and some fairly big developments happen with little attention given to them. It’s easy to follow but it did seem as though the back end was rushed even though it still packed some strong emotional punches. But that doesn’t undermine some wonderful work from a talented group of women. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” may not satisfy those looking for a more visceral experience, but not every Holocaust story requires that approach. Many of these stories weren’t as pronounced, yet they were just as powerful and inspirational. This is such a story.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Am curious for sure.
It’s quite good. And if nothing else watch it for Chastain. She is superb.
She is 🙂
It’s a very good movie.
I thought so too.
Good review. I agree that the last act was a bit bumpy (and a bit choppy), but the story as well as the acting was pretty good to make the film quite enjoyable and poignant.
Yep. Really strong overall. I think many carry in certain expectations for movies that deal with the Holocaust. This is such a unique story. It’s impossible not to be drawn to it.
I just watched this last night. It’s solid film but just didnt connect with it as emotionally as I wanted to
Bummer. I really did. I can see where it would lose its steam if you couldn’t fully connect. How about Chastain’s performance.
Yeah she was great for sure. I haven’t yet liked Daniel Bruhl yet so I think that’s part of it. He seemed a little of a caricature of a Nazi then a real person
I would love to see Chastain get some awards consideration for this.
Hello there Keith! Sorry been absent for so long as I barely have time to blog these days, been crazy busy w/ my film & the crowdfunding campaign. I missed the screening of this one but am eager to check it out as I love Chastain and your review confirms that she is one of the best actresses working today!
Hey Ruth! I completely understand. You’ve had a full plate but I know it’s exciting since it’s something you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. Chastain is so good here. It’s definitely a movie worth checking out.
Hi Keith! It’s exciting but also nerve wracking and challenging to produce a film, but I think doing crowdfunding campaign is even more stressful, ahah.
I’m such a big fan of Chastain. Have you seen Miss Sloane yet? She’s good in that too.
I still haven’t seen Miss Sloane. Need to though. In this film I think she deserves awards attention. She’s that good. Sadly I think this film and the performance has missed a lot of audiences.
A very well written review, Keith. You never disappoint.
Thanks Vinnie. Humbling and encouraging words. This is definitely one you should give a look. Well done film and one stellar performance from Jessica Chastain.
Your recommendations are always fine. And I’m off to see The Beguiled tomorrow.