World War II has long been one of Hollywood’s greatest points of fascination. And while the horrors of the theater of war will always be a rich source of storytelling, it’s increasingly rare to see this concept through a fresh lens. Enter The Zookeeper’s Wife, a picture inspired by the true lives of Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski. The pair run the Warsaw Zoo, and it’s flourishing. Antonina and Jan love the animals as they love their own son. Jessica Chastain stars in the titular role, and as she rides a bike around the zoo in the company of an enthusiastic llama and snuggles lion cubs that doom phrase of “the last golden days” from the opening minutes of The Sound of Music comes to mind. And indeed, Poland is in a precarious position, caught between the recently allied Reich and the Russians. Soon enough, the planes come, the bombs fall, the carnage is absolute and devastating, and worse, the Zabinski’s are forced to fall in line under Hitler’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, triumphantly returning to his well-worn role of despicable baddie under the impression that he’s one of the good guys).
The agonizingly familiar beats of this history are all there, but the vantage of civilians suddenly swept into a position of intimate contact with a man with connections and ambition, and a structure that affords them the opportunity to resist on a grand scale is rather singular.
There can be no mistaking that this is Jessica Chastain’s picture. The Zabinski’s decision to use their zoo to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto and on to freedom makes for an incredible story of heroism in the face of unimaginable odds, but even for all that weight, the success of the picture rests largely with Chastain, as she is far and away the most developed character we meet. Fortunately for all involved with The Zookeeper’s Wife, Chastain is up to the challenge. It takes but a few moments from her first appearance on screen for the viewer to be fully involved in her life. She’s dynamic, but not cartoonishly so, and emotive, but in a subtle way that speaks to the resilience of everyone who stayed in Warsaw, of all the silent heroes who did whatever they could, however they could, to help.
The Zookeeper’s Wife will put you through agonizing paces and break your heart at turns, but it is ultimately a tale of all the ways in which humanity and kind, innocent hearts eventually triumph over evil — and that heartening message is most welcome.