Friday, March 31

REVIEW: The Zookeeper's Wife

Directed by Niki Caro
2017 War Biography
2 hours 4 mins
From Focus Features

Jessica Chastain
Johan Heldenbergh
Daniel Brühl
Val Maloku
Iddo Goldberg

I confess my interest in seeing this film was the animals. And while the brief section in which they are featured was touching and exciting, it is brief.  Enjoy them before all hell breaks loose.

Equally touching is the couple portrayed by Jessica Chastain and 
Johan Heldenbergh, zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski.  They ran the still-thriving Warsaw Zoo at the height of the German invasion at the beginning of WWII.  What this loving and lovable couple did after the zoo was bombed was shelter hundreds of Jews, providing a waylaying station until they can be transferred to a safer place.  They also saved scores of animals, although sadly, not all.

She has a knack with the animals that leaves no doubt as to why she has chosen the profession she has.  It was natural for her to take her concern for animals and extend it to a people who were in trouble. He handles more maintenance and handyman issues but also provides a safety net for the family due to his intelligence, restraint and strength.

Some personal drama gets thrown into the mix (lest we find these people too saintly) when she allows some friendliness (nothing more than a prolonged touch) from the chief Nazi zoologist (Daniel Brühl) and her husband wrongly suspects that more is going on. The zoologist, while ruthless in most ways, chooses not to see his longtime working acquaintances as anything other than ones marching to his tune.

The three leads are all most convincing. Chastain seems to have a knack for knowing what parts are right for her.  I saw the character as having a dual nature... steely and yet fragile.  I think that's rather difficult to pull off but the actress nailed it.  I have never heard of Belgian Heldenbergh and while he's not really given a lot to do, he certainly handles it stoically.  His face exuded confidence.  Brühl gives a nuanced performance as a bad guy with a streak of kindness.  Some might say the many fleeing Jews were given short shrift because we learn very little about most of them.  But the simple truth is this is about the efforts of the zookeepers and their lives.

Nicely directed by Niki Caro who made a bit of a splash with her 2002 Whale Rider. She also steered North Country (2005), about sexual harrassment in coal mining, and McFarland, USA (2015), about a man's turn from coaching basketball to cross-country. Overcoming adversity seems to run throughout Caro's work.  She also certainly saw to it her newest had a realistic look. Major kudos for the animal scenes, which reportedly used minimal CGI.

Uncomfortable as it is to watch holocaust movies, what takes this movie a step beyond the usual stories is its message of hope and kindness.  Yes, there are those scenes that always make me squirm but the story is so moving because of the good things that were happening in the face of such adversity. How nice it is to see a film about such decent people.  We need it.  How about that finale? 

Next posting:
A good 70s movie

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