Movie Review: Humanity amid tragedy in ‘THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE’

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Preston Barta // Editor

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.
Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel BrühlTimothy RadfordVal MalokuIddo GoldbergEfrat DorShira Haas and Michael McElhatton

Just to be clear, this movie is neither a sequel to the 2011 Kevin James-starring eyesore ZOOKEEPER, or WE BOUGHT A ZOO with Matt Damon. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is an uncompromising history lesson so packed with tear-jerking drama you’ll need every tissue box from your local CVS.

A beautiful story about the Holocaust might seem like a foolish oxymoron, but with this one — based on both a true story and Diane Ackerman’s 2007 novel — filmmaker Niki Caro (McFARLAND, USA) proves otherwise. This is an endearing account of human empathy and its opposite. Sometimes it’s brutal and heartbreaking, while other times playful and wise.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE begins in 1939, where we meet a couple, Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), running a world-class zoo in the center of the Polish capital. Their elaborate workplace houses its animals, not just in cages but in areas meant to recreate the look and feel of their natural habitats. It’s actually quite sweet to watch as Antonina wakes up each morning to ride her bike around the zoo with the cutest baby camel ever following her everywhere she goes. She rides past her husband raking hay and greets each of the animals in true Dr. Doolittle fashion.

It’s apparent the film is trying to manipulate your emotions and cause you to feel compassion for each of these characters and animals. A cheap trick, sure, but also, hey, it’s cute animals, so you’re forgiven, movie.

Jessica Chastain is Antonina Zabinski in THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE. Courtesy of Focus Features.

After 15 minutes or so of hugging adorable tiger cubs, the Hallmark card quality is sealed and we climb aboard a one-way trip to unpleasantville. So if you were looking for a happy movie, I’m sad to report not many smiles happen once Caro hits you right in the feels by showing the zoo owners and their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford, and Val Maloku when older) trying to revive a newborn baby elephant.

In this eye-watering sequence, the audiences witness just how difficult it can be to watch animal emotions on screen. As Antonina so eloquently states at one point in the film: “You look in their eyes and you know exactly what’s in their hearts.” There’s a certain innocence to them that when watching the animals in a scene such as this or when bombs rain down to the zoo not too long after World War II settles in, we find ourselves shielding our eyes. And that’s not even the worst of it, because we still haven’t got into the horrors of the Holocaust.

The mercilessly effective Nazi bombardment of Warsaw destroys the zoo. The sky breaks open, cages explode, and terrified and wounded animals run about. And it’s from this moment we get to the real story: Jan and Antonina open their zoo and home to as many Jews as they can sneak in under the Germans’ noses.

There’s a lot to unpack in this drama, which spans from 1939 to 1946. We observe as many devastating events as one could expect in a movie about the Holocaust. Whether it’s witnessing acts of sexual violence toward a young girl or a helpless mother fearing her child may be shot dead, I cannot warn you enough how tough of an experience the film is. This fact may turn many of you away.

The truth is, while audiences may be quick to decide not to take part in a movie as depressing as this, the feeling of sheer love you feel once you leave the theater is profound. Caro does an admirable job of making the viewer see and feel every ounce of excruciating violence, but follows it up with scenes such as Jan trying to make his son laugh while tragedy surrounds them. It’s an important lesson many should learn: Sometimes we shouldn’t drown ourselves in our own tears and find the light in the darkness.

Grade: B

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE opens nationwide on Friday, March 31.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.

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