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It is Poland, 1939 and Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) together run the flourishing Warsaw Zoo. When Poland is invaded by the Germans, the couple is forced to report to the Reich's newly appointed chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who is interested in initiating a new, selective breeding program for the zoo. Antonina and Jan fight back and begin to work with the Resistance, using the zoo's abandoned animal ages and underground tunnels to use to help save lives of those relegated to the Warsaw Ghetto, and putting themselves at great risk.

Review by Louise Keller:
Courage, duplicity, loyalty and survival are the key themes of this gripping drama that offers a unique and refreshingly different perspective of the Holocaust. Adapted from Dianne Ackerman's book, The Zookeeper's Wife is based on a true story: during wartime in Poland, the Warsaw Zoo is used to house Jews to save them from certain death. The film provides yet another great role for Jessica Chastain, a woman of substance and compassion, who risks everything. There are a few flaws but nonetheless, it's an involving, heartfelt and moving experience.

There is a look of serenity on Antonina Zabinski's (Chastain) face in the opening scenes as she kisses a baby lion and warmly greets elephants, zebras, monkeys, tigers and hippos, the zoo animals to which she clearly feels great affection. Life seems idyllic, surrounded by the animals, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), the husband she loves and her young son, although there is an element of saccharine in the way director Niki Caro (Whalerider) has coloured it. As planes fly overhead, bombs fall and the animals show their terror. Life changes.

When Antonina meets German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) at the beginning of the film, their eyes meet after a moving sequence involving the birth of a baby elephant changes. They have a connection through their love of animals. But the entry of German forces and Heck's subsequent appointment and allegiance to Hitler alters this. There's an explosive dynamic between Chastain and Bruhl as their relationship develops and moves through different facets.

The seed to use the zoo as a hiding place for the Jews is planted when an old Jewish friend asks Antonina and Jan the favour if they would keep his prized, precious insect collection in safe keeping. It is not long before it becomes a 'human zoo', and the home of outcast Jews who sleep by day and come out by night, when Antonina's piano heralds a call to safety. We are affected by the plight of a young teenager who is raped by German officers and becomes a part of the family nurtured by Antonia. 'You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that's why I love animals so much,' she says. 'You look in their eyes and you know exactly what's in their hearts.'

Tension develops between Antonina and her husband Jan as the pressures of their dual existence exacerbates. After all, this is a story in which relationships, circumstances, reactions and actions are paramount. Our hearts are in our mouths as secrets are revealed and consequences are met.

All performances are excellent but I found it ironic that Chastain's Polish accent is more pronounced than the multi-lingual Bruhl, who is almost accent-free. This is something that Caro might have addressed. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this potent and thought provoking film that offers yet another unique snapshot of a memorable time in history.

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(Czech Republic, UK, US, 2017)

CAST: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Val Maloku

PRODUCER: Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Kim Zubick


SCRIPT: Angela Workman (Book by Dianne Ackerman)


EDITOR: David Coulson

MUSIC: Harry Gregson-Williams


RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes



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