THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriter: Angela Workman
Country: Czech Republic/USA/UK
Runtime: 127 mins
Australian release date: 4 May 2017
Previewed at: Roadshow Theatrette, Pyrmont, Sydney on 26 April 2017
They say if you do something illicit right under someone’s nose then you have a reasonable chance of getting away with it; it’s called ‘hiding in plain sight.’
This theory was put to the test after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 when the owners of the Warsaw Zoo used their basement as a hiding place for Jews while the Nazis maintained an armoury right in the zoo grounds. Husband and wife Jan and Antonina Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) provided a safe haven for a great number of people who managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto and were subsequently borne to freedom. It’s a story of incredible bravery on the part of the couple that is brought to the screen for the first time in The Zookeeper’s Wife, and what a story it is.
The film opens with the most endearing scenes as Antonina cycles around the zoo greeting animals and staff by name. It is evident that she has an amazing rapport with her furry friends but this Eden-like scene is soon obliterated as the first German bombs are dropped on the city. This scenario is incredibly disturbing as you are confronted with the horror of the animals being slaughtered but it sets the scene for things to come. Many residents leave the city but the couple stays on with their son Ryszard (first Timothy Radford, then later Val Maloku) in an attempt to save what animals they can and provide for their on-going care. The Nazis’ presence centres on a German biologist and zookeeper, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who’s attempting to breed back an extinct species of buffalo - a metaphor for racial purity perhaps? He also has his eye on Antonina, which means he’s likely to drop in to the zoo unannounced, causing significant angst for the Zabinskis as they continue their traffic in the residents of the ghetto.
NZ director Niki Caro successfully brings this period of history to light and her use of both live animals and CGI effects to recreate the zoo creatures is simply stunning. The solid performances by the leads are very watchable, especially Chastain’s, who does a good job with her Polish accent while dealing with Brühl’s menacing character. The film’s main fault is that the second half seems rushed; as though some explanatory scenes were left on the cutting-room floor when Jan suddenly morphs into a freedom fighter. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not Oscar material but it should be well received at the box office for the way it manages to tug at the heart strings.