The Holocaust film has become a genre unto itself, and sadly, there are more than enough stories from that era to continue the trend. But too often, many of these biopics fall prey to well-trod norms and conventions. In Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the backdrop of a Warsaw zoo offers a new angle and features a show-stopping performance from Jessica Chastain as the real-life Antonina Zabinski, but it otherwise follows a familiar path.
Caro smartly places the focus on Antonina. The rest of the plot might get muddy, but when the film is trained on the protagonist, it’s crystal clear. In an opening sequence, we witness her unique bond with the zoo animals, her openhearted love and empathy for all. With tenderness and bravery, she calms an elephant and rescues its baby, and those qualities make her a hero for humans in the face of unspeakable evil.
The story is of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to preserve a shred of humanity during war and human destruction. Antonina and her husband (Johan Heldenbergh) decide to harbor Jews from the Warsaw ghetto in their basement while Nazi forces occupy their zoo. They hide these “guests” in plain sight with a system of signals, transporting them from Jan’s garbage-collecting truck to underground tunnels.
Caro never achieves the razor’s-edge suspense that such a scenario engenders, as their ruse is only one sneeze, one bad lie, one snitch away from discovery. The powerful moments come from Chastain’s soul-baring performance as a gentle woman who loves enormously and always does the hard thing when the situation calls for it.
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The threat of sexual violence simmers under every interaction between Antonina and a cruel Berlin zoologist (Daniel Bruhl) who supervises an oxen-breeding program on their property. Caro doesn’t flinch from this theme but doesn’t exploit the material for salaciousness.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” delivers a singularly female experience of this war, and Antonina is unquestionably the hero of the story. Caro unspools an evergreen tale about the clarifying power of empathy to diffuse fear and hatred.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking. 2:04. Frankfort, Georgetown, Kentucky, Winchester.