The film tells the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinska, who sheltered more than 300 Polish Jews during World War II. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain), whose husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), runs the Warsaw Zoo, adores animals; we see her making the rounds of the zoo in the morning, affectionately saying good morning to every creature as a friendly camel trots behind her. She loves them, she says, because you can trust them: “You look into their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts.”
The early scenes of Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” seem to be setting us up for an exceptionally pretty female version of “Dr. Dolittle” — but this drama, which ominously begins in 1939 Warsaw, has something quite different in store. Antonina and Jan, whose story is told in Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (on which the film is based), were real-life heroes who sheltered more than 300 Polish Jews during the war. Smuggled out of the ghetto by Jan, some were hidden in empty animal cages (German invasions shuttered the zoo early on); some in the Zabinskas’ house, where Antonina would play certain tunes on the piano to signal safety or danger.
It’s a remarkable story, told in a movie that doesn’t always quite live up to it; except for a few crucial scenes, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” feels a bit too soft-focus for the devastating story it tells. And though Chastain has some powerful moments — particularly a late scene in which Antonina, her eyes dead and her mouth barely moving, has a charged encounter with a Nazi officer (Daniel Brühl) — you can’t possibly watch this performance, with its curly Polish-accented vowels, and not think of Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”; a comparison no actor would welcome.
Movie Review ★★★
‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ with Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton. Directed by Niki Caro, from a screenplay by Angela Workman, based on the book by Diane Ackerman. 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking. Several theaters.
But Caro finds some haunting, vivid moments: the eerie quiet of the bombed zoo; the snowlike ash from the burning of the ghetto; the sparkling golden Stars of David on a crayoned mural made by children hiding in the dark. And ultimately, the movie gets by on the power of its characters’ goodness; we want to believe that we, faced with a chance to make a difference, would risk our lives the way Antonina and Jan did. Spending time with them, even when hard to watch (there’s a deftly handled subplot involved a horrifically assaulted child), is inspiring; you leave wanting to know more of their story.
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