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‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ tells a riveting, true WWII story

Mar 31,2017
In German-occupied Poland during the darkest days of World War II, a zookeeper and his wife managed to save the lives hundreds of Jewish people, many of whom were detained in the Warsaw Ghetto, by giving them shelter and refuge on the zoo grounds. This extraordinary true story is dramatized rather effectively in director Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on the non-fiction book by the naturalist writer Diane Ackerman.

Caro, who directed “Whale Rider” and “McFarland, USA,” imbues the production with a glossy sheen, which in the confines of trailers and advertisements might make this look dismissible. In mining the drama of WWII for cinematic stories, audiences have rightfully been trained to be suspicious of those that look too pretty. You’re certain that “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is doomed to suffocating sentimentality, emotional blackmail and too-neat resolutions.

But despite a romanticized beginning, in which our heroine Antonina (Jessica Chastain) seems to live the most picture perfect life that’s ever existed (frolicking with the free-roaming zoo animals and gazing lovingly at her doting husband and son), Caro keeps the action and emotion real and grounded throughout. She chooses silences and understatement over heightened stakes.

By the time the invasion starts and the zoo is bombed and destroyed, you feel the loss of something that was once just good and pure. It’s distressing to watch the occupying soldiers shoot animals whether out of fear, wartime necessity or just plain evil and a reminder that humans are not the only ones who suffer in war. The animal metaphors can be a little on the nose, though, and the script makes Antonina over-explain her fondness for the creatures over humans.

But the real power of the story is in what Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) do for the persecuted Jews “ risking their lives to stage elaborately planned extractions from the ghetto and provide refuge for those they saved in their own home.

Look past the sepia and the dreary title, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is riveting both inspiring and comes as a welcome reminder that even in the face of astonishing evil, humanity and goodness can also rise to the occasion.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.” AP