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Jessica Chastain shines as ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’

The Holocaust film has become a genre unto itself, and there are more than enough stories from that era to continue the trend. Against ever-shifting, polarized political landscapes, the lessons gleaned from the horrors of this very recent past are never not relevant. But too often, many of these biopics fall prey to well-trod norms and conventions. In Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the backdrop of a Warsaw zoo offers a new angle. The film features a show-stopping performance from Jessica Chastain as the real life Antonina Zabinski, but it otherwise follows a familiar path.

Caro, working from script by Angela Workman adapted from Diane Ackerman’s book, smartly places the focus on Antonina. The rest of the plot may go a bit muddy, but when we’re trained on our protagonist, it’s all crystal clear. In an opening sequence, we witness her unique bond with the animals of the zoo, the power she holds over them with her simple approach of open-hearted love and empathy for all. With tenderness and bravery, she calms an elephant and rescues its baby, and those same qualities make her a hero for humans in the face of unspeakable evil.

The story is one we know, of ordinary people choosing to do extraordinary things to preserve a shred of humanity in times of war and human destruction. Antonina and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), decide to harbor Jews from the Warsaw ghetto in the basement of their home while their zoo is occupied by Nazi forces. They hide these “guests” in plain sight with a system of signals, transporting them from Jan’s garbage collecting truck to underground tunnels.

Caro never quite achieves the razor’s edge suspense that such a scenario engenders, as their ruse is only one sneeze, one bad lie, one snitch away from discovery. That danger is never fully rendered on screen in the way that it could be. The truly powerful moments come from Chastain’s soul-baring performance as a gentle woman who loves enormously, cares diligently, and always does the hard thing when the situation calls for it. She might be a bit too competent for the purposes of cinematic drama.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” delivers a singularly female experience of this war. The male characters are, of course, important, and Heldenbergh and Chastain express a strong chemistry as a couple physically passionate as well as intellectually and ethically aligned. But the perspective is distinctly feminine, and Antonina is unquestionably the hero of the story.

The threat of sexual violence simmers throughout, underneath every interaction between Antonina and Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), an overbearing and cruel Berlin zoologist turned military man who imposes on their property in the form of supervision over an oxen breeding program he’s installed. It’s a stark reality that Antonina faces in her darkest times, as well as for Urszula, played by the formidable young Israeli actress Shira Haas, a girl who has experienced the worst crimes of the Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. Caro explores this theme unflinchingly but doesn’t exploit the material for salaciousness.

The film’s flaws in pacing and suspense are easily overlooked in the shadow of Chastain’s moving performance, as well as the performances of those around her. Caro unspools an evergreen tale about the clarifying power of empathy to diffuse fear and hatred.

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