The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain is outstanding in this tale of courage and defiance during the Holocaust.
Sarah Ward
May 06, 2017


It'd be easy to be cynical about The Zookeeper's Wife. If it wasn't based on a true story, setting a World War II tale in a zoo could seem like an obvious attempt to wring cheap sentiment out of a tragic situation — we've already seen humans ravaged by combat, so we'll throw animals into the mix instead. Thankfully, that's not actually the case here. The drama might feature cute creatures big and small, but it's firmly concerned with the human impact in times of conflict.

To be specific, The Zookeeper's Wife explores how people cope when their lives and livelihoods are threatened, and how they band together to help others subjected to unspeakable horrors. When war hits and Hitler's head zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) arrives, it doesn't take long for Warsaw zookeeper Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) to switch their focus. If they can't run their usual operation — their best animals are shipped to Germany, while others meet a bleaker end — then they'll do everything they can to help rescue the Jewish people that have been rounded up in ghettos and treated worse than cattle by the Nazi regime.

Schindler's List might've just popped into your mind, as well as a plethora of other movies based upon tales of courage and sacrifice during the Holocaust. That's perfectly understandable. Familiarity isn't always a bad thing — there's a reason that filmmakers are drawn to similar stories, particularly when they demonstrate people displaying their best possible traits at a time when civilisation as a whole is doing the opposite.

There's much about The Zookeeper's Wife that follows the expected path. Whale Rider director Niki Caro brings the non-fiction book of the same name to the screen with handsome images and a solemn tone. There are grim scenes of cruelty and carnage, although the darkest deeds are alluded to rather than shown. The movie charts acts of hidden resistance that saved lives, and paints its otherwise ordinary protagonists as extraordinary heroes. Not unlike the recent Their Finest, it also provides an unmistakably female-aligned view of war, from the nurturing urge that sees Antonina shelter as many escapees as she can, to the clear threat of sexual violence that lingers every time Brühl's villainous character makes his intentions known.

Of course, that's where the reliably excellent Chastain comes in. After proving so ruthless and defiant in Miss Sloane, she's softer and kinder here, yet no less compelling. Indeed, there mightn't be much nuance in the film's melodramatic storytelling, but Chastain herself brings plenty. That applies whether she's saving a baby elephant, helping her secret house-guests, conveying a world of dismay in a glance, or rallying against oppression.


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