Sometimes, the time between a movie is planned, shot, edited, scored, promoted and released, its intended meaning changes along with the time it finds itself released upon. There’s no way actress/producer Jessica Chastain and director Niki Caro could have known what was in store for our political landscape of 2017 when the film was first set up in 2013 or when it went in to production in the fall of 2015, and perhaps it’s because of where we are today, with women and their rights under siege daily, that the film has extra adde poignancy and relevancy it may not have had if things turned out differently last November.
Poland, 1939. Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her zoologist husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh, making his American film debut) are the operators of the Warsaw Zoo, taking loving care its wide menagerie of animals and making it a very special place for them, their animals the citizens of the city. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned as their zoo is seemingly targeted for bombing, then equally flummoxed when they are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, “Captain America: Civil War”), who wants to first loot the zoo of its best surviving animals for his own zoo back in Berlin and then use the space to try and breed extinct animals back to life. To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance, putting into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
That Jessica Chastain is one of the best actresses of her generation should not surprise anyone. She can seemingly slip in to any role with the effortlessness of cinema’s greatest actresses. Just like Meryl Streep, we always “see” Jessica Chastain no matter what role she’s playing. It’s our ability to accept the actress in the role that matters, and Chastain slips in to the Antonina Zabinski role like we slip in to a t-shirt or camisole. How much she may resemble the real life Zabinski, or how close the movie may hew to the Zabinskis’ life story is immaterial. Her uncomplicated gracefulness makes us instantly accept Zabinski as someone who will get whatever she needs to do get done. She may never have to make as powerful a choice as Sophie Zawistowska, but you can feel Antonina’s pain when she makes an otherwise unconsciable choice in a moment of desperation in the hopes of finding out what happened to her husband, after being injured and captured by the Nazis as Johan moves to the front lines of the Polish underground as a freedom fighter.
Ultimately, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a love story. Love of husband and wife. Love of family. Love of life. Love of friends. Love of humanity. Love of animals. And it’s hard to portray the first kind without an actor who can meet an actress like Chastain head-on. Heldenbergh, best known in America for his work as actor and co-writer of the 2012 Oscar-nominated Belgian film “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” is that rare equal who elevates his co-star while making his own breakthrough. Hopefully, it’ll be more than just playing Nazis in Hollywood productions in his future. Brühl, who is almost always exceptional, does a fine job as the as the antagonist here, but it would be nice to not see him play something other than a Nazi (or Hydra) character once in a while. Also a stand-out here is young Israeli actress Shira Haas as Urszula, one of the people the Zabinskis rescue from the Warsaw Ghetto, who slowly blossoms the more she realizes she is safe from the horrors she dealt with under the Nazis.
That Chastain is using the power she’s amassed to bring more females in to significant roles in major productions is to be celebrated, regardless of the times we live in. Niki Caro has proven she deserves to be considered a force to be reckoned with, and the director of “Whale Rider” and “North Country” was probably the best choice to bring this material to life. For while dramas concerning Nazis require deft maneuvering, a less-strong director may have turned the bad guys in to overarching stock caricatures and relied on an excess of violence to make sure we understand just how vile Nazis were. Yes, Nazis were very bad people. There are very few people in the world who do not understand this. So when there are scenes of Nazi atrocities, such as the bombing of the zoo or the rape of Urszula by two Nazi soldiers in the Ghetto, Caro is smart enough to recognize the worst horrors are the ones we do not see but can imagine in our own mind’s eye when presented the aftermath of these actions. A male director may have dwelled on the titillation of the rape scene, but Caro is respectful enough of audiences to not go there. It’s unnecessary to show it, and we are thankful for that.
It would be really stupid to proclaim “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as the best movie of the year this early in the year. There are several hundred more movies coming out in the next nine months, and it’s a near-certainty there will be a handful of truly great movies arriving between now and then, but don’t be surprised to see Ms. Chastain, Ms. Caro and the film get some end of the year love if 2017 turns out to be a not-so-great year for cinema. It’s a well-made film that makes you feel a little bit better about the world when you leave the theatre, and sometimes that’s good enough.Rating: A