The Zookeeper’s Wife,” directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, is based on a nonfiction book about a Polish couple who helped save about 300 Jews during WWII. The movie opens with a shot of a boy sleeping with two baby lynxes, he is the son of Antonina (Played by Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), the zoo owners from the title.
Soon after the opening, the bad guy is introduced: Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, who you may have seen playing a similar Nazi villain in Inglorious Bastards). Heck is a zoo owner from Berlin, and Hitler’s chief zoologist. Before the audience has even adjusted to Chastain’s impression of a polish accent, her and Jan’s zoo has been taken over by Heck and other Nazi’s invading Warsaw.
The good scenes in this movie are the late-night calm conversations Chastain and Heldenbergh have in their bedroom, processing the trauma of recent events and formulating plans. There’s something very Buddhist about Chastain’s line on hiding Jews: “Don’t ask me how we’re going to do it, were just going to do it,” delivered late at night in their bed as her husband exhales cigarette smoke. Heldenberg was very believable in his role, maybe because he had a more authentic accent (he is Belgian).
There were some scenes that could disturb animal lovers. Elephants, eagles, and other animals are killed for various reasons. This is just a prelude to more upsetting things involving humans to come later on. It’s possible this movie should come with a trigger warning: it could cause distress; viewers discretion is advised.
Although there is a lot of theoretical adrenaline in a story about wartime and subterfuge, there were moments when this film felt slow. Maybe it was just fallout from some of the more tragic depictions of human suffering that led one to wonder if this was all PC to use for entertainment material. But perhaps this film sets out more to educate than to entertain.
Never the less, some things were glossed over that might have been fun to see acted out, like Hedelbergh getting in touch with the resistance. He just says he met them, but never explains how. Despite her sometimes-false sounding accent, in the tumultuous ending scenes, Chastain plays the drama very convincingly.
The music in some of the happy moments (escaped Jews sculpting, painting, or guys gardening in the sunlight) sounded sort of like the shire theme from Lord of The Rings. Overall, it might be worth seeing if you like historical films, or are just in the mood for something somewhere between dark and up-lifting.