Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruel
Writer: Diane Ackerman (book), Angela Workman (screenplay)
A review by Insha Fitzpatrick
I have an very open (yet closed) selection of movies that I enjoy. I like to explore the horizon of what movies have to offer, but keep close to b-movies, indie, and sci-fi films. Being in school really helped expand my sense of movies that I love, however, I never expected to love The Zookeeper’s Wife as much as I did.
I had the opportunity to venture into the screening for Focus Features’ new movie The Zookeeper’s Wife. I can’t express to you how much I enjoyed this movie. It touched emotions in all the right places and pulled at your heart strings to keep you engaged.
The Zookeeper’s Wife turns its focus on the real life story of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh). Antonina and Jan live a pretty normal life. They’re raising their son and running the Warsaw Zoo. It’s a thriving and amazing place for animals of all kinds and while Jan keeps to the grounds, Antonina cares for the animals. Antonina is gentle, sweet and very, very kind, and tries to keep the strings of her household and family together. However, things start to take a turn when the German army invades Warsaw, leaving behind absolute destruction of their zoo and their once thriving work is now occupied by the enemy. Things are made a little worse when their “friend” and the Reich’s chef zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) wants to embark on an ambitious project that occupies their space and their lives even more. Antonina and Jan decide that it’s in their best interest to fight against these forces and the evil around them, working with the Resistance in order to help save hundreds of lives, but also placing themselves in danger.
I will say again, this is a movie that I didn’t expect to love. I saw it as more of a pass-off movie, but actually sitting down and watching it completely changed my mind. The Zookeeper’s Wife touches you and shows you the strength of what people can really do. The film does a fantastic job in its storytelling, even allowing you to love the little moments, for example, Antonina taking care of all or any animal. The film never lets up emotion, but builds on them and allows you feel everything that’s happening to each and everyone of the characters as if you were there. Niki Caro’s directing this film was a very wise and great choice. She commands that you know her female characters and that being a woman is not a weakness, but a strength that men do not know.
The screenplay by Angela Workman is strong, but totally has a few of those “OH COME ON” moments. However, this film doesn’t stagnate, keeping you engaged with the dialogue and wanting to find out what happens to these characters while giving you a sinking pit in your stomach of what’s to come. The tone for the entire movie never swayed out of it’s central focus and I think that contributes to the strong director, the strong script, a strong tone, as well as the strength of the characters and actors themselves.
I could sit here and write you a love letter dedicated to Jessica Chastain, but I will spare you my gushing and tell you straight up that she is insanely brilliant in this film. Jessica plays Antonina with such heart that once she makes her presence known on the screen, you immediately fall in love with everything that she is. She brings out the emotional struggle of being both a wife and a zookeeper in a time when nothing was guaranteed, especially your safety. Johan Heldenbergh does a great job playing her zookeeper husband. He’s not what you would call a Hollywood star and I’m so thankful that they obtained someone realistic and perfect for his role. Daniel Brühl is cunning, magnetic, and downright evil as Reich zoologist Lutz Heck. Every single cast member brings a little bit of themselves to these characters and it absolutely shows.
SEE IT! The Zookeeper’s Wife is a film made by women and that definitely shows throughout. There’s something special when women take the reigns within directing and writing to tell their story and a woman needed to put Antonina’s history on screen because it was definitely needed at this time. It’s a movie about struggle, hardship, and the will to survive and reach out to others in need of help. Antonina and her husband hid 300 “guests” in the zoo over the years of Nazi occupied Warsaw. You have to admire a woman and her husband who put others in front of themselves, especially with everything collapsing around them.