In this intensely emotional and empathetic biopic, Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinska and carries a period World War II piece on her more-than-capable-shoulders, with a wonderful supporting cast bulking up this beautifully-crafted film. As a result, I really loved The Zookeeper’s Wife, and that’s hard to say about pieces detailing war and its consequence.
I’d hate to say that war films blend into a kind of amorphous mess, but as with every genre and its conventions, they do. It’s easy get used to images of suffering, and that shouldn’t be the case at all. We just know that there are certain beats that can be expected from a film like this. We anticipate there will be death and deep anguish, and so-called appropriate responses to that. But considering the film industry’s seemingly increasing penchant for unrelenting pathos, it’s actually become fairly desensitising especially when so many war films feel cold. I know I personally did not allow myself to cry watching the particularly difficult scenes involving death and torture in this one either – like I’ve steeled myself much like I do with such similar movies.
But that’s where The Zookeeper’s Wife comes in and it’s like a breath of fresh air. It takes the ‘war movie’ format and amps it up greatly with its emphasis on love, empathy, and little pockets of contentment. The scenes affirming and celebrating life – however fleeting – got me the most. Of course, there is still an overhanging air of melancholy in the film, but for once I didn’t feel completely bogged down and distant watching something I should be very reactive towards. The film expertly plays on the audience’s expectations when it comes to violence, and never feels indulgent and gratuitous.
This film is about a woman who goes above and beyond to love each and every living being around her. The parallels drawn between the zoo she and her husband run and the process of hiding her Jewish counterparts are seamless, which makes the film feel genuine and organic. The narrative pacing works perfectly and nothing feels too drawn out or even too short. It balances the grief and painful consequences of war and the heartwarming moments Antonina has with her family and the people hidden in her home (all of whom become a found family to each other) so well.
Jessica Chastain is luminous as ever as Antonina, and this really feels like a labour of love for her. Her quiet disposition is always defiant and watchful as she keenly eyes both opponent and friend, every authentic inflection – however minor – moving me to tears each time. And every single one of her co-stars – including the animals – are wondrous in their own right. The cinematography and music lend themselves to the performances, marrying effortlessly.
It’s the kind of warmth that Chastain clearly brings to Antonina that anchored The Zookeeper’s Wife for me; that moved me as much as the inherent bittersweetness of the story. What’s special here is that pure emotionality is not cheated in the slightest. Instead, it is honoured. Rather than allowing the audience ‘feel-good moments’ that would have felt cheap and fake, it instead revels in compassion that you can feel deep in your heart. Its warmth lingers long after we’ve left the theatre too.