Set in the Warsaw at the onset of World War II, The Zookeeper’s Wife allows us to share a few fleeting moments of joy with the title character as she immerses herself in that city space she operates with her husband for the benefit of the animals they keep and the citizens who take pleasure in their beauty.
Jessica Chastain is a picture of happiness bicycling around the grounds as Antonina Żabiński, calling after a baby camel to follow her on the morning rounds, noting what needs to be done for each species. Johan Heldenbergh is the large and steady hand as she steps in save the day during an elephant birth gone awry, to much appreciation and applause from the patrons.
But even at that satisfying moment, another figure is starting to cast his shadow over their lives. Lutz Heck – Hitler’s man in charge of this sort of thing – is watching and waiting for his orders and time with Antonina.
The bombs fall, the happiness turns to horror, and this true life story written by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman and directed by Niki Caro becomes a study in fighting back.
It was hard to watch the savagery on the living room flat screen, first to the gorgeous animals and then to the proud citizenry of this city in Poland as Hitler’s troops did their thing to take control of the zoo and Warsaw.
The Zabinskis wanted no part of it, each crafting their part to fight back.
The wife must seem to go along with Heck’s plans and promises, which include the wish to take the best of the animals to Berlin now and them bring them back after the war. Daniel Brühl slinks around the screen in a big way as the villain who may or may not have a big heart.
The husband must drive around the city to collect scrap food for pigs – and, slyly, dangerously, hunting for hurting people who need keeping in their zoo house basement.
Lives hang in the balance every time he goes out on his rounds and she stays home to meet with Hitler’s man.
It’s easy to choose who to root for in this one during every twist and turn.