Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
PLOT: This is the story of a zookeeper and his wife who discover a way to protect hundreds of people during the German invasion of Warsaw.
REVIEW: In the past few months, Jessica Chastain has certainly proven that she can carry a film. With last year’s MISS SLOANE - which earned her a Golden Globe nomination - she gave one of the most powerful performances of the year. And here we are with another starring role for the actress. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is yet another opportunity for Ms. Chastain to give another powerhouse of a show. Complete with an accent, she is one of the brightest spots in this story about a zookeeper and his wife trying to save their zoo, as well as save innocent lives when Hitler’s army came to burn down the ghetto’s in Warsaw. Directed by Niki Caro (McFARLAND, USA, NORTH COUNTRY), this is a bit shy of a great film but it benefits heavily featuring Chastain as Antonina Zabinski.
Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) had a simple life before the war came to Warsaw. The couple, with their young son, take great care to keep their zoo prosperous and take care of the animals. However, as the threat of World War looms over Poland, and their zoo is bombed killing several animals, Antonina finds a seemingly friendly face in Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). However, she discovers that he may not be the friend and cofidant that she had anticipated.. Soon, many of Zabinski’s Jewish friends are gathered together and taken away to unknown locations. Desperate to do their part, the couple decide to open their zoo to try and protect as many people as they can from the Nazi regime, risking their own lives in the process.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a solid, if not quite great, true life story. Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman - based on the novel by Diane Ackerman - give us a more personal story of a horrifying war. Yes, there is much that is devastating. Groups of people gathered together to be sent to camps or kiilled, and a heartbreakingly disturbing sequence where the zoo is bombed. Yet the violence is kept to a minimum, and the very adult relationship between Chastain and Heldenbergh is treated especially well. There is mistrust and heartache, but ultimately it’s a love story between these two, and the horrors that they are currently faced with. Had the relationship between the two not been this heartfelt, it wouldn’t have worked.
Speaking of working, it is Chastain who really brings this feature to life. Every single time she is on screen she radiates strength, beauty and passion. It’s difficult to really compare most modern actors to some classic and familiar faces, yet Chastain offers something quite refreshing. The actress reminds me of a the iconic talents from Hollywood yesteryear in many ways. Watching her performance in THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE reminded me of watching Bette Davis, Myrna Loy or perhaps Barbara Stanwyck. She captures this character in a wonderfully satisfying way. And all those working with her are better for it.
Speaking of solid performances, you can count on both Heldenbergh and Bruhl. The two actors share a very different, and equally engaging, relationship with Chastain. Daniel Bruhl once again plays a bit of a villainous character, and it works. In fact, there are many terrific performances here, one of the best is a young woman who faces a horrific encounter with a couple of vicious soldiers. Shira Haas has only a few credits to her name, but she is fantastic here. The actress brings a very vulnerable and frightened innocent to this story, giving all an extra emotional layer.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a well made film, one that gives a little insight into the personal struggles of those affected by the tragic events of that tragic time in history. There is nothing terribly exceptional about it, but it is a hard story to resist. Even harder to resist is the lovely Jessica Chastain who continues to prove what a force she has become. As good as her work is here, I don’t expect this to be the film that earns her an Academy Award necessarily. However, she is definitely on the right track. The best thing I can say about this, aside from Chastain, it handles the sensitive material rather well. Thankfully Niko Caro is seemingly very aware of the talent she has to work with because her leading lady really shines.