A story that tries to tell of the horror of war and the cruelty that human beings can unleash on fellow humans and helpless animals
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those films, which, while far from perfect, is still memorable and worth watching despite its mostly minor faults. The film came and went in Nepali cinemas earlier this spring almost unnoticed, an unusual release for theatres that are used only to screening big Bollywood and Hollywood films to make ends meet, a business model that is inevitable across the globe where smaller films get less play than blockbusters, sometimes regardless of quality (think of the Transformers films) due to the laws of supply and demand.
Starring the dazzling Jessica Chastain, one of the finest, if not the finest, actors of her generation, the film tells the true story of a brave couple in Warsaw, Poland who, at the advent of the Second World War, stick to their beloved zoo even as they see the animals they care for and nurtured killed in airstrikes and for sport by the Germans who invade Poland very early on.
Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, the wife of zookeeper Jan (Johann Heldenbergh), the central character around whom the film revolves. Antonina is a bleeding heart, she loves animals, and she is brave, articulate and determined to stick it out at the zoo, their home, no matter what. As havoc ensues around them, the Zabinskis salvage what they can, induct their young son (who also loves animals) into their schemes, and begin an incredibly dangerous arrangement that involves housing Jews in their own home, smuggling them out of the horrifying Warsaw ghettos where they have been relegated, and transporting them out of Poland when possible.
Chastain struggles sometimes with a weak script that is saved by her performance and that of Heldenbergh, who plays a quiet scholarly zoologist turned resistance fighter, aided by the wonderful little Timothy Radford as their small son, Ryszard, who learns quickly to guide the Jews secretively into his home. There a number of plot twists, including the Zabinskis’ relationship with Lutz Heck (played by the talented Daniel Bruhl), a German zoologist turned megalomaniac Nazi officer who haunts the Warsaw zoo and gravitates towards Antonina’s warmth. Unfortunately, despite the riveting story at work here, there is almost not quite enough for a feature film, and the story flounders as it tries to create a dramatic arc out of sometimes nebulous plot points.
This is a movie to watch if you love animals, love Chastain, and are not too big a stickler for plot, preferring atmosphere over drama. It is also an important story that I am glad I am now acquainted with: a story that tries to tell of the horror of war and the cruelty that human beings can unleash on fellow humans and helpless animals.
Niki Caro, the director of 2002’s magical Whale Rider is hindered here by the patchy script but her instinct for bringing out the warmth in characters hits home, guiding the film to a conclusion that rings even more true because it all tragically, happily, actually happened.