The Zookeeper’s Wife
Reviewed by: Thomas Butcher
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” depicts the true story of Polish couple Antonina, played by actress Jessica Chastain and Dr. Jan Żabiński, played by actor Johan Heldenbergh, who helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews during World War II.
By secretly transporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and hiding them in the Warsaw Zoo, Jan and Antonina were able to undermine German forces while appearing compliant. Based on the book “The Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman, this war drama is unlike any film shown before.
The title character of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” Antonina clearly showcases affection for the zoo animals by interacting with them during the film’s opening. Chastain has a captivating performance as Antonina not only producing a flawless accent but by acting alongside various exotic animals.
Director Niki Caro shared her thoughts with me about her lead actress, Jessica Chastain.
“She was everybody’s first choice for this,” Caro said. “It was amazing because she pretty much said yes right away. And there’s you know, a singular reason for this and it’s that Jessica loves animals. She is genuinely an animal whisperer.”
This was abundantly clear in scenes where Chastain is seen cuddling lion cubs or calming an elephant.
“There was this, just wonderful trust and communication between her and the animals that are a really, really special part of this movie and something that I don’t think, I imagine could not have been achieved with any other actress,” Caro said.
Caro then acknowledges how “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is different from other war dramas because it focuses on a female protagonist.
“War is experienced by everybody. It’s not just experienced by men,” Caro said. “So it’s very interesting to me to see a war movie that focused on the female experience. It is certainly true that I’ve made a holocaust movie all about women and children and animals. But women, children and animals experience war also. And it was very compelling and exciting for me to make a war movie that had that significant difference.”
This isn’t the first time Niki Caro has directed a film with a true story.
She also directed the film McFarland, USA (2015) which revolves around a true story. When asked what draws her to telling true stories, Caro said it’s the responsibility involved with it.
“I began really early on in my career with telling stories that were either true or based in truth or had some central truth to them,” Caro said. “I take that responsibility really, really seriously and I work very, very hard to serve the material as well as I can.”
“And it, you know, for me it takes me right out of it. It takes my ego right out of it. I literally serve the story and try to meet the need of the story and bring it to an audience that I know from experience will respond well to a story if the story is true.”
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a success for Caro. She managed to tell a story that took place during another lifetime and bring those characters to life. The heartache expressed by the children living through this time is prevalent throughout the film. The fear of not knowing what tomorrow may bring is consistent in this story that spans years. The pain from another time and place remains and is remembered long after the credits roll.
One of Caro’s next projects is going to be the live-action remake of “Mulan.”
“Although the canvas is a lot bigger (for “Mulan”), my approach doesn’t change at all,” Caro said. “I really value the writing very much. I tend to work with writers, for a long time before the script goes into production. I take casting very, very, very seriously as I do my role in communicating the story to an audience. So, I imagine I will do it exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale.”