The Zookeeper's Wife

 

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A zoo in Warsaw becomes a sanctuary for Jews during the Second World War.

 
Zookeeper's Wife, The

Jessica Chastain

 

Based on the book by Diane Ackerman, this film pays tribute to Jan and Antonina Zabinski who were running the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the war broke out. They remained in the capital and after the war won recognition for their bravery in the aid they had given to Jews. They had saved some three hundred who, be it for a shorter or longer time, had been hidden by them and who would ultimately survive the war.

 

In telling the story of this couple between 1939 and 1946, the film may start out with an emphasis on animals but it soon becomes a depiction of the sufferings of the Polish people while their country was occupied by the Germans. Consequently, as an English language work The Zookeeper’s Wife runs the risk of being one of those national tales which on screen loses any real sense of conviction by not being played out in the true language of its characters. In this case, however, the film gains from the committed performance of Jessica Chastain (herself an executive producer). As hinted at by the title, she makes Antonina even more than Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) the central figure here. It helps too that the other key role, that of the German zoologist Lutz Heck whose professed wish to help the Zabinskis is not to be trusted, is taken by the accomplished Daniel Brühl who is at ease acting in English. There is also a well-judged supporting performance by young Shira Haas in the role of a rescued Jewish girl who, temporarily or otherwise, has been rendered mute by her devastating experiences.

 

This film directed by Niki Caro best known for 2002's Whale Rider lasts for just over two hours but, particularly in its first half, it moves at a good pace. It may seem like a mainstream movie (a fact apparent in the music score of Harry Gregson-Williams) but, on its own terms, The Zookeeper’s Wife earns the respect of its audience. Indeed, for much of the time one can feel that it would go down well with young adult viewers of the kind who embraced such films as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) and The Book Thief (2013). But, if the story told is based on fact, the adaptation of it for the screen proves less persuasive in its later stages. After Jan has been wounded and taken prisoner, Antonina seeks out Lutz Heck in the hope of tracing her husband. This scene brings to a head a theme that has been building up throughout the film. Lutz’s military role is such that the Zabinskis need his co-operation to get by once the zoo has been converted into a pig farm. That being so, Antonina has been careful not to go too far in obviously rejecting the advances that he has started to make to her. But now he tries to go further and this at a time when he is growing suspicious that the Zabinski family are not supporters of Hitler. This scene and those that follow smack more of fiction and contrivance than anything that has preceded them so by the close The Zookeeper’s Wife falls rather short of what it had promised. However, as popular cinema there is much here to engage audiences.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Val Maloku.

 

Dir Niki Caro, Pro Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick and Julia Blackman, Screenplay Angela Workman, from the book by Diane Ackerman, Ph Andrij Parekh, Pro Des Suzie Davies, Ed David Coulson, Music Harry Gregson-Williams, Costumes Bina Daigeler.

 

Scion Films/Czech Anglo Productions/Rowe/Miller Productions-Universal Pictures.
124 mins. Czech Republic/UK/USA. 2017. Rel: 21 April 2017 Cert. 12A.