By Angie Raphael
Based on a true story and adapted from Diane Ackerman's book, The Zookeeper's Wife offers a different take on the WWII stories we often see of brave people who helped protect their Jewish friends from persecution by the Nazis. Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) were the keepers at Warsaw Zoo, who risked everything to help save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion of Poland. The film is an essentially accurate portrayal of what happened, although some important and interesting details are glossed over, while other fictional sub-plots are added in unnecessarily, to the point that the two-hour film at times veers into melodrama. Writer Angela Workman and director Niki Caro seemingly chose to focus on the Zabinskis' domestic issues, rather than the specifics of how Jews were treated in Warsaw, other than to leave hints such as a scene in which children unknowingly board a train to a concentration camp.
Chastain portrays Antonina as a tender yet strong-willed heroine, while Heldenbergh is also convincing as the courageous and intelligent mastermind behind the dangerous plan, although he should have been given more screen time to really show what Jan achieved. Daniel Bruhl, who plays a Nazi infatuated with Antonina, is good but seems to be falling into a type-casting trap following his recently similar performance in Alone In Berlin and other villainous roles. The way in which Antonina and Jan used their zoo to essentially hide their activities in plain sight is miraculous and a film about their heroism is the least that can be done to honour them, even if it does oversimplify their accomplishments.