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The Zookeeper’s Wife review: Jessica Chastain leads the cast and co-produces this interesting look at a more personal wartime story from Whale Rider director Niki Caro.

The Zookeeper’s Wife review by Paul Heath.

The Zookeeper's Wife review

Adapted from the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an interesting, if sometimes hard-going drama based on a true story set during World War II Poland.

The story focusses on the famous Warsaw Zoo, one of the biggest in Europe, run by Dr. Jan ?abi?ski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain). Warsaw is on the brink of invasion, and early in the film, the famous zoo is hit hard from a massive German attack killing most of the animal inhabitants. A resilient Jan and Antonina choose to stay rather than fleeing their home and are offered the opportunity to save the surviving animals by Berlin Zoo head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who also happens to be Hitler’s zoologist. The couple agree to let Heck take the animals back to Berlin, but the zoologist chooses to stay and open a slightly odd breeding program on the zoo’s land. His presence leads to inappropriate advances towards the heartbroken Antonina, something that isn’t reciprocated in the slightest, and when the couple make a bold decision to smuggle Jews out of the nearby ghetto and hide them in their basements, their immediate danger is massively intensified.

The Zookeeper's Wife review

The Zookeeper’s Wife is, as mentioned before, a heavy, hard-going drama, and cinema-goers should be warned going in as early scenes are brutal and indeed sometimes extremely difficult to watch. Images of animals being slain oppose Chastain’s breezy introduction moments before, though her performance delights from the off and is the main reason why the film works. The actress makes a turn as a character the polar opposite of other roles we’ve seen her in recently – her Antonina is shyer and more humbled than say her awards-worthy Miss Sloane in the upcoming film of the same name, and a testament to her talent. Personally, I don’t think she’s ever been better. ?abi?ski is also strong as Jan, as too is Brühl as the villainous Heck, though his brutal and foreboding presence doesn’t quite reach the level of menace that one may expect.

The Zookeeper's Wife review

Director Niki Caro continues to add quality product to her respected resume with an engrossing film, though it’s very easy to see here where costs were trimmed to lower the budget. The opening attack seems underplayed but one of the strengths of the film, despite what I said about the opening scenes, is its decision not to show extreme war-set violence later in – which is refreshing for a film of its kind. In fact, The Zookeeper’s Wife seems like a movie offering a throwback to films made decades ago – which may develop into being a problem for modern audiences. Angela Workman’s script does plod in places, but its note-perfect cast bring the words to life in a way that won’t allow you to look at your watches or switch off during its ample two hour-plus running time.

In a week filled with very average new releases, this one’s head peers of the top of the pack and may be the one to win the audience’s gaze over the new release window.

The Zookeeper’s Wife review by Paul Heath, April 2017.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is released in cinemas across the UK from Friday 21st April 2017.

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The Zookeeper's Wife review