4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, brief sexuality, nudity and moments of extreme dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.31.17
I marvel at the wealth of previously undisclosed stories that continue to emerge from the Holocaust, particularly with respect to the bravery of ordinary citizens who risked their lives while defying Nazi oppressors.
New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose thoughtful and sensitive films have included The Whale Rider and North Country, has delivered an equally compelling adaptation of poet/naturalist Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife. The resulting drama, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s luminescent starring performance, is touching, suspenseful and at times flat-out horrific, revealing yet another layer of atrocities committed in pursuit of Nazi “cleansing” and “species enhancement.”
Ackerman’s book was constructed primarily from the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska (played here by Chastain), who with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) directed Poland’s unexpectedly progressive Warsaw Zoo during the years leading up to World War II. Most of the animals were kept not in cages but in habitats resembling their natural environments; numerous critters also wandered among or even lived in the spacious, cheerfully chaotic on-site home with Antonina, Jan and their young son Ryszard (Timothy Radford).
The fascinating complexity of Chastain’s performance is immediately apparent. On the surface Antonina seems vulnerable, slightly withdrawn and oddly fragile: a woman not quite comfortable with the trappings and protocols of so-called refined society. But in the company of the zoo’s wildlife she blossoms into something transcendent: an empathetic “animal whisperer” practically capable of communicating with all the birds and beasts.
We eventually learn the reason for Antonina’s wariness: She’s a Russian-born Pole, and as a child saw her parents killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Trust does not come easily, which also explains her greater comfort among animals.
The Żabińska’s social life is lively, varied and bohemian, their circle of friends including artists, professionals and intellectuals, many of them Jewish. The subtle viper in their midst is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a colleague who visits frequently in his capacity as director of the Berlin Zoo. Even in these early scenes, there’s something predatory about Heck’s gaze, particularly when it lingers on Antonina; it feels as if Brühl’s eyes turn reptilian and beady.
Antonina makes the rounds of the zoo each morning on a bicycle, a young camel trotting alongside enthusiastically. Should a particular critter appear to desire company or need assistance, Antonina will kick off her shoes before entering the habitat barefoot, like some sort of forest-born wild child.
None of this is the slightest bit affected or risible under Caro’s careful guidance, and Angela Workman’s finely tuned script. Nobody here channels the childish fantasy of Doctor Dolittle; if Antonina has any cinematic ancestor, it would be Audrey Hepburn’s mysterious Rima, in the 1959 adaptation of William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions.