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Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

A portion of this review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski, The Zookeeper's Wife, a true story based on the international bestseller of the same title. The Zabinski family run a lovingly crafted zoo in Warsaw but political unrest unnerves Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenberghenough to attempt to send his wife and child away. Antonia, naive and endearingly devoted to her animals, won't have it. Then German bombs hit their attraction, killing many animals. Poland surrenders to Germany quickly. Much to the Zabinski’s horror they learn that their surviving animals will all be killed for meat to feed soldiers unless they can strike a deal with fellow zookeeper and now Nazi officer (Daniel Brühl, Hollywood’s go-to Germanic villain who isn’t named Christoph Waltz). 

While working on this deal with the devil, Antonina and her husband begin a dangerous game, hiding Jews in their now empty zoo until they can figure out a way to get them out of Poland to (relative) safety in a world gone mad...

That's the set up to this effortlessly involving if not quite exciting World War II drama. It's difficult to say what crucial spark is missing as the movie is well acted and handsomely made.

Chastain anchors the drama and tearjerking moments abound. The star's elegant subtle arc, from soft guileless naivety to resilient sneakiness is the main attraction but not the only one. The animal trainers deserve special kudos with many scenes that most have been very difficult to shoot given the proximity of the actors to the wild animals, interacting directly with them with no stunt doubling or CGI noticeable. The supporting cast is full of international actors doing good work. Chief among them is the 21 year-old Israeli actress Shira Haas (Princess, a Tale of Love and Darkness) who is gripping as a young Jew who has been raped by German soldiers. She and Chastain elevate their quiet shared scene into the movie's most delicately anguished moment. The cuddly bunny they take turns holding can't even steal the scene away!

Though the Holocaust genre is exceedingly well worn at the movies, recent worldwide events and political movements have reminded us that we still need to keep learning its sobering lessons; the politics of hate and the dehumanizing of scapegoated minorities remain a real threat to peace in the world. Though The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t reinvent the wheel on this genre, the setting is, at least, a fresh one. The emotional pull of nature, through purring lion cubs, cuddly bunnies, and majestic beasts of all kinds is definitely felt. And then, even more powerfully, comes its haunting absence. The animal backdrop brings first an unexpected softness and then an alien undertow to an otherwise familiar but ever harrowing story.

Grade: B
Oscar Chances: Doubtful given its first quarter release and another upcoming World War II drama likely to become a huge Oscar focus (Dunkirk)

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Reader Comments (19)

Heard that Chastian's accent in this is a bit "off"?

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Jamie -- i couldn't say. She was playing a Russian immigrant to Poland who also deals constantly with Germans so there were a lot of different accents among the cast with everyone speaking English.

April 5, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love Chastain - she's the real deal.
I love her acting, her looks, her commitment to her craft, her attraction to auteurs - everything.
But her accent does sound wonky in the trailers for Zookeeper's Wife.
Nathaniel, how does her accent play in the movie?

On a sidenote, I have a real problem with movies that has english-language-when-it's-not-supposed-to-be-english-language; it's one of those Hollywood movies-contrivances that I simply cannot get behind, especially in movies that strive for realism.
It takes me out of the movie somehow.
But what can you do?
It's always been like that - since Hollywood's Golden Age and onward -
and will always be like that.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

I think it's great that the movie is released in first quarter of the year! Besides the fact that I hate all the good movies being released on December, it will also (I hope) give time for the film to build narrative all along the season. Chastain is overdue y'all!

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I saw it. It's no Jurassic World.

I have much less of a problem with the the English being spoken,l than I do with the fact that it's being spoken WITH AN ACCENT!!! As if there are a bunch of people in some other country speaking English to each other in their native accent.

I realize that it's an established convention, but mein gott. I just about can't do it any more. It's the surest sign of mediocrity that I can think of in a trailer. It turns me off instantly.

It's probably just a me problem. Like my aversion to most novels written in first person.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Funny how J. Law sucks at accents and no one ever call her out for it.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRhonda

That is one thing I loved about Dangerous Liasons - they did not speak with French accents or , worse, Masterpiece Theater British approved accents. If the characters are not speaking French then no accent is needed.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Her Scottish accent in The Huntsman was WAY OFF

I definitely totally like her, she's an amazing actor, just one not very good with accents.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Sad but true re: Dunkirk swallowing up all the energy in the room. Not a coincidence that it's the more male-driven of the two.

Although I'm hypocritical since I don't have much interest in seeing Zookeeper's Wife, though I'm always rooting for Chastain and Niki Caro. We need more successful female directors.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

How many "Wife" movies are there? Their generally not successful, no?

The Preacher's Wife (Whitney) - based on The Bishop's Wife
The Slugger's Wife (Becks De Mornay)
The Rich Man's Wife (Halle)
The Butcher's Wife (Demi)
The Astronaut's Wife (Charlize)

Any others?

(The Good Wife doesn't count)

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

@SoSue don't forget McAdams in The Time Traveler's Wife!

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian S-G

Can't wait to see this film.

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEz

Go Jessica! Jess is the best actress working today. She's a much better actress than Cate Blandchett.

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAveryStepfon

SoSue--Loretta Young was The Bishop's Wife

The Pilot's Wife--Christine Lahti

I just watched Jessica in Miss Sloane. She murderized that. Wow, what amazing work.

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@ Ulrich you have to keep in mind that they also have a bottom line to worry about, if the movie is in English it opens the movie's accessibility up to the wider market, this makes it convenient for American audiences as well as international ones as most cities that show American wide release films usually have a population who can at least understand English if not speak it fluently. It's a marketing decision.

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterT

^I'm fully aware of all the reasons - the financial reasons, the marketing reasons, the budgetary reasons etc -

doesn't change the fact that it's fucking annoying!!

April 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Oooh, forgot about Time Traveler's Wife...never heard of Lahti's "wife" movie though...will research.

April 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

I'm beginning to suspect my lack of enjoyment was due to my own expectations rather than any fault of the author's.

December 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterdon

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