During the Second World War, Antonina and Jan Zabinski smuggled hundreds of Jews out of the Polish ghetto. Using their zoo as a way-house, they helped hundreds of people escape out of Poland right under the Nazis’ noses.
We begin The Zookeeper’s Wife in a slightly surreal Utopia. It’s a bright, sunny day. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) in a cheerful summer dress rides her bike through the zoo followed by a galloping camel. She greets the animals as she passes by and they respond in a symphony of roars, trumpets and caws. A gaggle of people wait just outside the zoo gate as she arrives. They enter the zoo, smiling, laughing, cheerily greeting one another.
This idyllic opening does not last for long. Director Niki Caro keeps us off balance from the moment the first bombs fall from the sky, launching Poland into the chaos of Nazi occupation. From the first explosion, there is an unease that permeates everything, heightened by Caro’s slow, thoughtful approach throughout the film. There is very little action, and outside of a sweeping survey of the carnage rendered by the bombing, very little spectacle.
The focus is on the small moments of interaction between people. It’s about the tender moments between Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and the fearful looks traded by conspirators in the streets; the unease of Antonina at the attention of German zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) and his clear desire for her. It’s the small, light moments shared by the Zabinski’s and the Jewish people who they have hidden in their home, Antonina’s piano signalling brief moments of safety.
The attention to detail extends to the production design and the costuming. All of this creates a profound sense of place built on a series of small, intimate moments. They are completely submissive. All this makes The Zookeeper’s Wife a deeply emotional film, supported by the subtle nuances of the performance from Chastain. The film is built around her. She is the centre and her emotional arc drives everything else forward. She is supported by the rest of the superb cast who match her step for step.
The one small quibble is the title. It feels insincere and almost like Caro was forced to make it clear that there was a woman at the centre. It also gives the wrong impression of what the film is. The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds like a film about an affair. Fortunately, that has nothing to do with the actual film, which begins feeling kind of insubstantial, but builds to a deeply emotional portrait of a woman desperately trying to hold herself and her life’s work together, while saving the lives of hundreds of others.