Weekly Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife; Chastain strong in touching, fact-based film

While it may be unpleasant to discuss, human beings are capable of mean, downright evil things. Some argue technology has made it easier for people to display their cruel nature. Whether it’s a profane tweet, a hateful email or posting a video of an actual murder to Facebook, maliciousness and depravity can, at times, feel pervasive in our world. Despite this, even in the midst of evil, good can still be found. One recently released film depicts an example of the good some humans are capable of in the face of pure evil. 

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of the owners of the Warsaw Zoo and the great lengths they went to save hundreds of lives during WWII. As the film opens, shortly before the beginning of the war, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) is making her morning rounds, checking on the zoo’s many residents as customers file into the popular attraction. But as perfect as things might seem on the surface, everyone is understandably on edge. There are rumblings and whispers of Hitler’s military moving into Poland.

Flash forward a few months, the Nazis now occupy Warsaw and have consolidated its Jewish population in the city’s ghetto. While the Nazis control all of Warsaw, they do allow Antonia and Jan Zabinski to continue operating their zoo but under strict supervision. The Zabinski’s strike a deal with the Nazis. They will use their zoo to raise pigs as food for the occupying military. However, this is a ruse. The Zabinskis take advantage of their somewhat friendly relationship with members of the military to hide Jews in their zoo and smuggle them out of the country.

As with most films starring Jessica Chastain, her performance is the highlight and that is indeed the case here. While there is not a weak performance in the entire film, Chastain stands out among the rest. Her work in the especially emotional and gut-wrenching scenes as she empathizes and connects with those who have been subjected to unspeakable horror is likely to bring a tear to the viewer’s eye.

Despite the strong work from Chastain, the film could have been easily improved if the story would’ve focused, even just a little more, on Antonina’s husband, Jan Zabinski. He was by far the more interesting of the two characters. He interacted more with the Nazis, saw more of the horrors the Jews experienced and took up arms against the Nazis.

The Zookeeper’s Wife runs a little long and focuses too much of its attention on a less compelling character, but its still a well-made film, highlighted by Jessica Chastain’s performance. 4 out of 5.