CAUTION: There are some light spoilers below.
Amidst today’s sequels, reboots, franchises and comic book movies, it’s always refreshing to see an original movie come down the pike, especially when it is based on true historical events. We’ll see this again this summer with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). The Zookeeper’s Wife was released on April 7, 2017, though for the life of me I could not find many reviews of it. I saw the film shortly after it was released, because the trailers always had me fascinated. I immensely enjoyed the movie and felt called to share with you my thoughts and why you should experience it.
Based off the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who along with her husband save many different animals and people in war-torn Poland when the Germans invade their zoo in 1939. The Zabinskis hide numerous Jews in their zoo and house basement, and when Antonina plays her piano in the evening, it is safe for their guests to come out. When she plays the piano during the day however, it means run and hide because Nazis are at the door or are in the house.
You should know upfront that the film does not have as many animals in it as you might think. There are a variety of animals throughout the film, but the story does not really focus on the animals as much as the humans. This does not deter from one’s enjoyment of the film however; in fact, it makes it more relatable. Just do not expect a We Bought a Zoo (2011) type of feel. Audiences should know going in however that this film is rated PG-13 for a reason. While most kids could probably handle most the film, there are some surprising and shocking scenes of violence. There is nothing R-warranted, just a hard PG-13. I suppose one wouldn’t really call this a family film anyway, but families with mature children should certainly see it. Despite you thinking that you have seen this type of movie before, it being a historical picture during World War II, it still feels fresh and is a story that not many people know about.
After seeing this movie, I have really started to appreciate Jessica Chastain as an actress. I have always enjoyed her work in such things as The Help (2011), Interstellar (2014), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and the recent Miss Sloane (2016), but I was reminded after this film just how talented she is and how captivating it is to see her perform on screen. She is unquestionably one of the bests actresses working today. While some critics thought her Polish accent in this film was off-putting and distracting, I personally bought it and really believed in her character; she is familiar enough of an actress to recognize, but you tend to forget that once you’re wrapped up in this character’s story. This is really about her; it is her film and she owns it well. Chastain steals every scene she is in, able to appear both innocent yet cunning from an insightful script. A highlight in particular is when she shares her sorrows and story with a tortured, traumatized little girl whom they just rescued and are hiding from the Germans, hoping that she will confide in her, with a little help from the remaining zoo animals. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ms. Chastain was considered for an Oscar nomination for this role, although it may have come out too early in the year to keep up with the fall contenders. She might just sneak in though.
The film was fantastically directed by Niki Caro, known for Whale Rider (2002) and Disney’s McFarland, USA (2015), though personally I believe this is her best work to date. Caro will also be bringing us the new live-action Mulan from Disney on November 2, 2018, and if this version of Mulan is anything like the strong female characters of Paikea from Whale Rider or Antonina Zabinski from this movie, then we really have something special and powerful to look forward to from her and her film crew next year.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a triumph, and has your full attention from start to finish. It does not try to be a Best Picture winner, it just tries to tell a moving story from our history, and it succeeds in doing so. The fact that this film is based on a true story is even more enticing when you see how tremendously brave and passionate Antonina is… and was. The scenes where we see her relationship and trust that she shares with the animals is enchantingly heartwarming. Just hearing Jessica Chastain talk about Antonina Zabinski in interviews sends emotional chills up your spine. The film’s last half hour begins as what the audience expects, but there are twists and turns you don’t see coming that makes it a rollercoaster of emotions all the way to when the screen fades to black. The film is a little over two hours, but does not feel its length. It is an intense film, as said especially towards the conclusion, but it still manages to balance this successfully symmetrically, giving the audience moments to relax and marinate on the characters’ circumstances and the characters themselves, amidst the heart-pounding scenes of struggle and turmoil. It’s a well-directed, well-written, and powerful story (with an engaging and suspenseful yet reflective musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams) that everyone should see, with stellar performances across the board, especially Jessica Chastain (The Martian (2015), The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)), Daniel Brühl (Rush (2013), Captain America: Civil War (2016)), Johan Heldenbergh, and Shira Haas (who doesn’t have much dialogue here, but offers incredible acting, especially at such a young age, through her eyes alone). The Zookeeper’s Wife inspires hope and courage in all of us.