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Movie Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
This movie tells the story of Antonina Zabinkski (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who were a non-Jewish married couple that lived on and ran a Zoo in Warsaw, Poland just before the beginning of World War II. Antonina is a respected animal whisperer, of sprta, who has a way with all of the animals in the zoo. The couple love on the zoo with their son when, one day, the Nazi forces reach Poland and use an air strike to drop bombs on Warsaw (which includes the zoo). Devasted by the Nazi invasion and the horrors that the Jewish population is being forced into, the Zabinskis decide to use their Zoo as a hideout and sanctuary for the Jewish people they rescue from the Ghetto. If this did not already sound like an impossible task, their Zoo is also being occupied by Nazi forces.
Jessica Chastain (+10pts)
The Plot (+10pts)
The Ghetto (-3pts)
Johan Heldenbergh (+5pts)
The Boy (-1pts)
Pro - Jessica Chastain (+10pts)
As should be no surprise, Jessica Chastain is easily one of the best parts of this film. At first her character seems one-note as a soft-spoken animal whisperer and expert, but as the film goes on, the character is portrayed with much more complexity. In certain scenes, the character (externally) shows strength and courage but Jessica Chastain's eyes told a much different story. They show fear, and pain in a perfectly subtle way. There was a lot to this role and Jessica Chastain nailed the performance. In a movie filled with great performances, Jessica Chastain is an obvious standout which is more proof that she is, arguably, one of the best actresses working today. Her performance will captivate the audience in a subtle manner and I think the movie is worth seeing for this performance alone.
Con - Setup/Focus (-8pts)
I really enjoyed the setup to this movie. It really sucked me into the film and had me invested in these character's lives but I did not think the setup matched with the rest of the movie. At least as far as what the setup focuses on. The setup focuses on the love of animals. It focuses on the expertise and passion that the main characters have towards the animals in their zoo while paying very little attention to the imminent World War or the Nazis. However, the rest of the movie focuses on World War II and the Holocaust while paying very little attention to the passion for animals. Each part of the movie (on it's own) works really well, but the film does not setup the Nazi growth or the early signs of the holocaust. The setup of the film casually mentions these things but for a movie that centers around the holocaust, I could have used a few scenes to better understand the main character's position on the matter, what it means to them and how it impacts their lives. I understand that this movie focuses on the family at the zoo and that these characters did not fully understand what was coming, but I think the end result is a movie that is not as impactful to it's audience as it could have been. As a whole, the movie could have used a more balanced focus.
Pro - The Plot (+10pts)
This is easily one of the best parts of the movie industry. Telling true stories, on a large scale, of some truely inspiring people that made a difference in the world. Stories like this are important and should not be forgotten by society. Non-Jewish zookeepers in late 1930s Poland, who used their zoo as refuge and as an Underground Railroad of sorts to men, women and children. The Zookeeper's wife was the one looking after and protecting the refugees from the local Nazis setup within the grounds of the zoo while her husband was away getting more refugees to bring to the zoo. Two humble zookeepers, with some help, made a difference and successfully saved hundreds of Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. The plot in this movie is fascinating and is very interesting to watch unfold.
Con - The Ghetto (-3pts)
One issue I had with the film, was that it did not properly focus on the horrors within the ghetto, aside from one incident involving the girl. Other than that incident the movie sort of glosses over a lot of what the men and women in this situation had to deal with. Most of what we see of the ghetto is seen through the eyes of Jan Zabinski. I get that the movie did not focus on this since the plot centers around the zoo, but I think the movie would have connected more with its audience if it spent a little more time showing Jan witnessing the ghetto.
Pro - Johan Heldenbergh (+5pts)
Johan Heldenbergh played Jan Zabinski in this movie. I thought this actor did a magnifive job of showing the weight and the depression that this man must have gone through. Witnessing the ghetto the way he did, knowing that he could save some but knowing that no matter how many he saved it would still never be enough. This took a huge toll on this man, he risked his life on a daily basis to save hubdreds of Jew, but he had to do so while looking in the eyes and witnessing true horror fall upon all the people he could not save. I thought Johan did an outstanding job of capturing that complexity in a subtle fashion.
Con - The Boy (-1pts)
This was a pretty minor issue, but this movie covers a large period of time. So naturally, the Zookeepers' son would grow older. In this movie, there is a random switch in the actor that is playing the son. This would be fine if there were not a bunch of Jewish children coming and going from the zoo. So the first scene after the actor switch, I had no idea who this boy was that was talking. I know this is a pretty minor issue, since I quickly figured it out, but I think the film should have introduced the new actor in another scene to clearly show it was the Zookepers' son.
Rating: B+ (88pts)
I quite enjoyed this movie. It is not perfect, but Jessica Chastain gives another fantastic performance and the plot for the film was very intriguing. Knowing that the film was based on a true story makes it even better. One of the films biggest weaknesses was that I did not think the setup fit well with the rest of the movie. That being said, this was a very compelling movie from beginning to end. I think this is absolutely a movie worth seeing whether you go to the theater or wait for it to hit home video. I think it is an important story about how anyone can make a difference while exploring the weight of the horrors of the holocaust.
I do have to give a disclaimer that this movie shows animals getting hurt. You can probably imagine that would have happened since the movie is about a zoo in Poland during the Nazi invasion. Just be ready that this movie does not imply that animals get harmed, it shows it on screen. I think this was necessary for the story but I think some animal lovers would appreciate a heads up, though I think this movie is still worth seeing.