Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl
Written by: Angela Workman, based on a book by Diane Ackerman
Directed by: Niki Caro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
Running Time: 124
Date: 03/31/2017

The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Animal Magnetism

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) directs this true Holocaust story, set during WWII in the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) run things, and Antonina is a passionate animal lover who takes pride in her work. But as the war looms closer, things go south.

Fellow zookeeper Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) offers to help shelter Antonina's animals, but as things get worse, Heck becomes a Nazi, and ghettos spring up all over the city. The couple cooks up a plan to hide as many persecuted Jews as they can in the spaces beneath the animal cages, with Jan driving into the ghettos to smuggle out people, and Antonina back at the zoo, warding off Heck's creepy flirtations.

Caro's overall approach to the film finds a respectable balance between horror, preaching, and sentimentality, and finds a good place within, telling her story and allowing the audience to meet halfway. Even though Jan's story is easily the more dynamic of the two, Caro spends equal time on each half of the couple and makes them equal. Antonina's stolid bravery belies powerful, honest emotions, and Chastain's performance (with a Polish accent) is top-notch.

The characters are drawn in shades of gray; no one here is good or evil. They are all just humans forced to make hard decisions (and sometimes the wrong ones). Animal lovers beware: while the production did not -- of course -- harm any animals, there are many wonderful creatures here, but there are also moments of tragedy and horror as the zoo is bombed. It can be hard to take, but hopefully worth the effort in the end.

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