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The Zookeeper’s Wife

Humans prove to be the real animals in this dramatic war film

When the invading Nazis lay waste to their family zoo, Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain use it as a sanctuary for Jews. <<© Focus Features>>

In 1939 Warsaw, the Zabinski family — Jan (Johan Heldenbergh: The Tunnel) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain: Miss Sloane) — run a popular zoo.
    Their world is destroyed by invading German tanks and planes. Carpet bombings of the city empty cages, loosing wild animals on the city to be shot down by the Nazis.
    Trying to salvage the remainders of their zoo, the Zabinskis recognize the greater atrocity around them. As Jews are ordered to move to the ghetto, Antonina and Jan put their empty zoo to good use, hiding Jews from the Nazis.
    It’s a dangerous gambit. The Nazis rule by day, transforming cages to storage. By night, the Zabinskis pack their basement and the animal tunnels with people, praying that they’ll be quiet enough to avoid detection.
    The plan works, and the zoo fills with endangered people.
    Still, stress tears the couple apart. Jan goes into the ghetto every day, pretending to collect trash to feed the pigs but instead smuggling out as many men, women and children as his truck will hold. He is haunted by the crimes he witnesses and the conditions people endure.
    Antonina, meanwhile, has caught the eye of Hitler’s head zoologist (Daniel Brühl: The Promise), who shows up at random in hopes of wooing the keeper’s wife. She endures his pawing, but Jan cannot.
    Can the Zabinskis keep their new charges safe?
    Based on the bestselling novel and true story, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving but flawed Holocaust drama. Performances are fantastic. But director Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) fails to knit a cohesive whole; time is especially jumbled.
    While Caro adapts Holocaust narrative clichés — children loaded onto trains, burning ghettos and violated women — he uses them effectively. With an extended sequence of Nazi killing of exotic animals, including a bald eagle, he breaks new ground in portraying Nazi evil.
    As the heart of the film, Chastain is a marvel. Strong, kind and willing to make dangerous decisions for the greater good, her Antonina is both an emotional support for traumatized people and their fierce protector. Antonina’s impossible position — beguiling a Nazi to protect her family and her charges — invokes a plot too charged for many movies to dare.
    See it for excellent performances and insight into the history of the resistance in Poland.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 124 mins.