“The Zookeeper’s Wife” isn’t entertaining so much as transportive. It’s a heroic tale set amid one of humanity’s worst moments, and the tragedies it depicts can be difficult to watch.
Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, wife of the director of the Warsaw Zoo in the days leading up to the Nazi invasion of Germany.
Her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), wants Antonina to leave the city with their son, and the viewer knows what trouble awaits them when she talks him into letting her stay.
The zoo is a delightful place. Tiger cubs sleep in the bassinet with the Zabinskis’ son, and a young camel trots along behind Antonina as she bicycles around the zoo.
Then planes overhead are followed by bombs on the ground, and the Zabinskis’ idyllic lives are shattered by the realities of War World II.
Horrible things happen to the animals after Nazis take over the zoo, and those deaths foreshadow more misery to come, as Warsaw’s Jews are stripped of their rights and forced into a walled-off ghetto.
The Zabinskis aren’t Jewish, so they could’ve made it through the war by keeping their heads down and ensuring the safety of their son. But “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is based on a true story of the heroic couple who put themselves at risk in order to help others.
A sense of dread hangs over the movie from the beginning, and that gets worse as atrocities increase and the Zabinskis find themselves in more and more precarious situations.
While Mr. Zabinski faces dangers beyond the zoo’s walls as he tries to get people to safety, his wife deals with her own threats at home.
Heck (Daniel Brühl) is a German officer and zoologist who runs the Berlin Zoo. In addition to shipping all the valuable animals from Warsaw to Berlin, he also has hopes of wooing Antonina. Even if she’s playing along to protect others, it’s not easy for Jan to see his wife so close to the enemy.
The movie is powerful, even though it has its flaws. There are several slow moments when “The Zookeeper’s Wife” loses its momentum. A tighter edit could’ve helped without distracting from the story.
One warning to family viewers: An early scene shows a naked breast. Chastain covers up quickly and stays covered up.
I didn’t know that was allowed in a PG-13 feature, and the shot certainly wasn’t necessary to further the story.
I give “The Zookeeper’s Wife” a B. It’s showing at Malcos in Tupelo and Oxford.