Hot Take: Jessica Chastain is a phenomenal performer. The Zookeeper’s Wife is an emotional look at another story of courage and self-sacrifice during the Holocaust. It is likely to get lost amongst these films as many are great and this one is adequate. Did I mention Jessica Chastain is a phenomenal performer?
From the beginning, you realize The Zookeeper’s Wife isn’t going to always be easy to watch. However, for a film which details a heroic footnote to the widespread impact of the Holocaust during WWII, it often downplays the most depressing aspects of the story. It’s solemn nature also has a romantic and softer feel thanks to a strong lead performance from Jessica Chastain who portrays Antonina Zabinski, the titular character of the film.
The story revolves around Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) who run a zoo in Warsaw, Poland which is devastated by a bombing run by the Germans near the beginning of World War II. As the Germans infiltrate Poland and begin the internment of the heavy Jewish population of Poland, the Zabinski’s zoo is occupied by German troops. The Zabinskis are approached by Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), Hitler’s zoologist, who offers to transfer their most prized specimens to the German zoo for safekeeping until after the war. Heck, an acquaintance of the Zabinskis prior to the war has his eyes on Antonina.
Desperate to keep the zoo from being completely wiped out and being pushed from their home and concerned for their close Jewish friends, the Zabinskis devise a plan to help Jews escape from the Warsaw Ghetto through the zoo which is turned into a pig farm with the permission of Dr. Heck. Despite the stress it puts on their own relationship, the Zabinskis heroically risk their lives to rescue hundreds of Jews from the Ghetto. We’ve seen this type of story told before (Schindler’s List comes to mind first) but the film has a rare softness that encompasses the cold, hard reality of the ramifications of the Holocaust that gives the film a different feel.
Much of that can be attributed to Chastain who gives yet another great performance as Antonina. The performance also poses a problem for the film as Chastain often becomes the center of attention over the film’s storyline which sometimes takes a back seat to her character’s presence on screen. The amazing selflessness of the Zabinskis is impossible to overshadow though as they risk everything to rescue not just their Jewish friends but perfect strangers who face peril at the hands of the Nazis.
It’s not one of the best Holocaust films which would explain its March placement on the movie schedule. However, the story of the Zabinskis and the Warsaw Zoo is big screen-worthy and even if it weren’t, Chastain’s performance is worth the price of admission.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
In the last year, Chastain has turned in marvelous performances in two underrated films — Miss Sloane and this film — and even delivered in the much maligned The Huntsman: Winter’s War. This creates a lot of anticipation for Molly’s Game, the Aaron Sorkin film starring Chastain alongside Idris Elba and Kevin Costner.
This feels like a backhanded compliment but we already knew Bruhl could competently portray a Nazi soldier from his work in Inglorious Basterds and he delivers a competent performance in The Zookeeper’s Wife in the same vein. His previous performance was better but this one is good, too.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- By the “Book”
This adaptation relied heavily on both the novel of the same name and the diaries of the Zabinskis. However, where the film goes more by the book than anything is in its storytelling style. It rarely if ever strays outside the lines which helps deliver an adequate film but prevents it from reaching Oscar-caliber.