THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE — Review by Cate Marquis

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The Zookeeper’s Wife is not only an inspirational true story told through a lush historical film but a women’s cinema trifecta: A female star in the lead role, a woman director and a woman author. The director is Niki Caro, who rose to fame with Whale Rider, another film with a determined female central character, and the film is adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name. The star is Jessica Chastain, who plays Antonina Zabinska, a little-known hero during the Holocaust, who ran the Warsaw zoo alongside her husband Jan in pre-World War II Poland. When the Nazis invade their country, Antonina and her husband sheltered hundreds of Jewish men, women and children in their home on the zoo grounds, and therefore saved their lives. Read on…

Although the couple worked together to save people from the Nazis, Chastain is the true star of this film. Antonina was a wife and mother but unlike many women of the era, Antonina did not just tend the house and their son. Instead, she worked side by side with her husband running the zoo. In fact, her affinity for animals gave her a magical touch with them, which made her an essential part of the zoo’s operation. When the Nazis invaded, the couple, who were not Jewish, felt compelled to help – at first, Jewish friends but then others, despite the danger. During the war, Jan was often gone, searching for permanent safe places for their Jewish guests, so Antonina was alone under the Nazis’ gaze. Her ability to win the trust of the Nazi zoologist in charge of their zoo, a role played German actor Daniel Bruhl, was key to deflecting Nazi attention from the couple’s secret mission. A Russian-born refugee as a child, Antonina grew up with hardship and found comfort and companionship in animals. She used her animals, and the lessons she learned from them, to bring comfort to the traumatized people she was trying to save.

Beautifully shot, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a true story drama that is both tense and touching. This historic, heroic story is deserving of attention but not everything about this film is perfect. After a strong start, the film seems to lose dramatic focus midway, although it recovers by the end. Further, it is plagued by the difficulty of understanding dialog spoken with heavy accents. Still, the photography, period costumes and locations are all marvelous, and it is such an inspiring yet little known story, that some flaws could be forgiven. Apart from the accent, Chastain does a wonderful job and her Antonina is both strong and soft, a touching, sweet figure who easily wins our hearts.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.