*** out of ****
(for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity, and smoking)
Released: March 31, 2017
Runtime: 124 minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg
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For a movie that feels like Miramax Oscar bait from twenty years ago (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), The Zookeeper’s Wife still stirs enough effective human drama – at times rather powerfully – to overcome a recognizable formula of Holocaust perils.
Equal parts stately and gritty, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a period production that wears its prestige well. It takes awhile to find its tonal footing, unsure if it wants to be a safer, more age-accessible version of Nazi persecution, or go all-in on genocidal horrors (or, perhaps, try to have it both ways, the worst choice of all).
Once it decides on the latter (with traumatic scenarios and adults-only content), The Zookeeper’s Wife becomes a worthy take on well-worn material, especially given its unique setting, with the added benefit of being based on a true story.
In 1939 Poland, Antonina and Jan Żabiński (Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh) operate a thriving zoo in the heart of Warsaw. As the German army advances across Europe, however, Poland eventually falls under Hitler’s grip and Polish Jews become inevitable targets. The Żabińskis initially hide one close Jewish friend, but as Nazi persecution increases so too does the Żabińskis’ willingness to increase their level of personal risk.
Pulling an Oskar Schindler style ruse, the Żabińskis cleverly transform their depleted zoo into a facility that can help the war effort. Behind that front, they harbor Jews in a spacious basement while also transferring some to freedom, but with Nazis stationed on the grounds under the oversight of a sinister officer Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, in the requisite Amon Göth role), the threat is ever present. Complicating matters is Heck’s lustful intentions toward Antonina.
By now, there have been so many Holocaust movies that the collective canon has become a genre unto itself, with its own tropes – and many are recycled here. There are the daring assisted escapes, close calls at check points, roused suspicions, ghetto liquidations, merciless killings, and secret seders – to name just a few.
While that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it does mute suspense. But under the sophisticated direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and the conviction of her cast, The Zookeeper’s Wife still wields a significant power. Of particular note is young Israeli actress Shira Haas in an arresting supporting turn as a teen girl who’s taken in by the Żabińskis after being raped and beaten by Nazi soldiers. Her fragility is heartbreaking, and her arc deeply moving. In a performance that’s almost entirely wordless, each moment feels emotionally profound.
There are creative missteps. The accents are all over the map, and some unnecessary brief sexuality and nudity keeps this from being appropriate for a wider audience. With just a few edits, this could have been thought-provoking viewing for younger teens who are ready to be challenged.
Still, the cinematic craft here is first rate, with the look, style, and skill of an awards contender. Caro is slated to helm Disney’s live action update of Mulan, and nearly everything about this production inspires expectation and hope for that endeavor.