Some people seem to have more of a rapport with animals than they have with other humans, and Antonina Zabinska is an excellent case in point. She’s the sensitive, secretive title character in director Niki Caro’s screen adaptation of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and she is played with enormous warmth and nuance by Jessica Chastain.
It’s 1939 in Warsaw, Poland, and when we first meet Antonina, she seems to have stepped out of a storybook. A camel follows close behind her as she bicycles around the grounds of the idyllic zoo she and her husband operate. Lion cubs take naps in her bedroom. She comforts a pregnant elephant.
Antonina, her husband, Jan (played by Johan Heldenbergh), and their young son are blissfully happy, but sharp-eyed enough to see the dark clouds on the horizon. Their world is literally rocked as the Nazis sweep into Poland, dropping bombs on the zoo and destroying Antonina’s private paradise.
In one of the film’s most startling sequences, tigers, kangaroos and other exotic residents of the zoo rush into the streets of Warsaw, frightened by the calamity all around them. When things finally settle down, Jan and Antonina find themselves at the mercy of a man they once considered a colleague and friend, Lutz Heck, who has become Hitler’s top zoologist.
Heck, played by the charismatic German actor Daniel Bruhl, is persuaded to allow the Zabinskis to convert the zoo into a hog farm that can raise much-needed meat for the troops. Jan, however, sees an opportunity to work against the Nazis, by smuggling Jews out of the ghetto and hiding them beneath the ruins of the zoo.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is based on a true story and, with a less capable director in charge, it could have been turned into another well-intentioned but heavy-handed story of standing up to the Nazis. Instead, Caro approaches the material the way Antonina approaches her animals - with uncommon gentleness and understanding. She is determined not to build up Jan and Antonina into larger than life heroic figures, preferring to quietly celebrate the risks they took and the results they achieved.
If “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is not always as enthralling and gripping as it should be, that’s because there seem to be some important bits of information missing, and there’s no way of telling if they were absent from Angela Workman’s screenplay or left in the cutting room. Character motivations are sometimes fuzzy, and it would have been worthwhile to spend a little more time detailing the mechanics of Jan’s mission, which seems to swing into operation with remarkably little difficulty.
In its best moments, though, the movie catches us off-guard and effectively conveys what it feels like to always be surrounded by danger and horror. Illusions are everywhere, whether it’s Heck dreaming of using the genes of oxen to bring back the extinct Auroch, or fearful Jewish women disguising themselves as Antonina’s visiting relatives to slip out of the house, or the peculiar precipitation that Antonina and her son initially think is a snow storm, but turns out to be something far more chilling.
Speaking in a respectable Polish accent and skillfully modulating her emotions, Chastain gives a superbly subtle performance. She’s nicely matched by Heldenbergh, who is very good at showing how courage can blossom in unexpected places, and Bruhl, who portrays Heck not as a standard-issue Stormtrooper but as an ambitious and woefully misguided man intoxicated by a taste of power.
Whatever its shortcomings, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” makes a strong case that sometimes ordinary men and women can accomplish extraordinary things, even in the face of terrifying odds.