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The Zookeeper's Wife

Opening Date
30 Mar 2017
NC16 Some Nudity
126 mins
English with no subtitles
Biography, Drama, History
Niki Caro
Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl, Johan Heldenbergh
Based on the New York Times best seller, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the moving, true story of a husband and wife’s compassion and incredible will to save hundreds of Jews during WWII . After the brutal Nazi invasion of Poland levels Warsaw and ravages the city zoo, zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina are left to salvage what’s left of the grounds and the few surviving animals. As the Nazis begin to tear apart the Warsaw ghetto and deport its Jews to certain annihilation, Jan and Antonina risk everything and smuggle as many victims as possible into their zoo. In the face of utter hopelessness, Antonina finds the strength to keep spirits high through music, conversation and even laughter when they dare to let their guard down. Ever on the edge of being discovered and against all odds, Antonina and the sheltered Jews manage to restore each other’s faith in humanity and together plot a harrowing escape to freedom.
By Flora  30 Mar 2017
Based on the novel by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a heartening story about a Polish couple who hid hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, right under the noses of the German Nazis.
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Based on the novel by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a heartening story about a Polish couple who hid hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, right under the noses of the German Nazis.

Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, where she and her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run a world-class zoo in the centre of the Polish capital. She cares for the wellbeing of all the animals there - where in one scene she saves a newborn elephant from suffocating on its own amniotic fluid. When the war broke, the bombing destroyed most parts of the zoo and many animals were killed as a result of it. 

When the German Nazis occupied the zoo as their army base, Antonina and Jan, together with their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford) are forced to stay indoors as much as possible. It all became worse when young Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) becomes smitten with Antonina, often finding chances to get closer to her. While Antonina and her family are not Jewish, many of their friends and neighbours are, and they came up with a highly dangerous and crazy idea to rescue and hide Jews in their basement. 

As insane as it sounds, The Zookeeper’s Wife is actually based on a true story of the two heroes during the Holocaust period, where the Zabinski family had actually smuggled and hidden over 300 Jews. The piano became a form of communicating to the Jews. When Antonina plays a soothing tune at night, it meant that the Nazis have left and that it was safe to come out from their hideout; conversely, when the melody became intense, it meant that they should remain absolutely silent. 

As an agricultural engineer, Jan was appointed as the superintendent of the city's public parks, giving him the opportunity to visit the Warsaw ghetto to smuggle Jews, on the pretext of collecting pigs feed.  The family will keep them until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere, or through illegal documents.

Jessica Chastain once again proves to be an accomplished actress, who gives another impressive performance of Antonina, complete with an accent. It’s a pity that the narrative doesn’t push Chastain’s performance, but rather the Oscar-nominated actress elevates the film’s narrative. Chastain has much potential to be nominated in one of the big award shows for her portrayal in this movie, and we are keeping our fingers crossed for it. 

Director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman have a lot of material to work with, giving us a more personal story about the horrifying war, somewhat told through the point of view of Antonina; her journey as a loving mother a devoted wife, and most importantly, a heroic rescuer. The ‘action’ comes from the secret rescue missions and the smuggling of Jews from the ghetto to their zoo, but the story really sharpens after the Jews are housed in the basement. It gives an insight of the lives of these people who were wrongfully tortured, including a little girl who was raped by Nazi soldiers just before being rescued by Jan.  

The film fizzles in its crammed details and extensive distractions. It tries to expand on too many subplots that the story peaks at the beginning but falls flat throughout. Though some stories are necessary in giving the film a more in-depth look at the horrifying period, it suffers in keeping the pace of a war-story exciting on a big screen. 

The Zookeeper’s Wife is beautifully shot, with splendid set designs and adorable animals to boot. Jessica Chastain carries the film with grit and charm, but the narrative doesn’t balance out the intensity and urgency of the critical situation in which the real-life couple suffered. 
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