The Zookeeper's Wife (3 stars)

The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain is the chief selling point of a solid wartime drama from Niki Caro

Any film that foregrounds Jessica Chastain is worthy of your attention. The American star has impeccable taste, although this Niki Caro-directed wartime drama, based on a true story, is perhaps more middlebrow than most of Chastain's choices. She plays Antonina Żabiński, whose diaries chronicling her life with husband Jan formed the basis of Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book, adapted here by screenwriter Angela Workman.

Antonina and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, the Flemish actor from The Broken Circle Breakdown) ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s, but when the Germans invade Poland in 1939 bombs raze the city to the ground. After many of the zoo animals are killed, Antonina has little option but to allow the rest of their prime stock to be shipped to Germany, under the watchful eye of Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a German zoologist who becomes increasingly embroiled in the Nazi party.

With the zoo barely operational, Antonina and Jan suggest to Lutz it be used for pig farming to feed the German troops. But this practical idea soon becomes a cover, as the couple smuggle Jews from the ghetto and hide them in the basement before shipping them out to safe houses. While you shouldn't expect this to measure up to Polanski's towering Oscar-winner The Pianist, it is hard not to be moved by the daily horrors endured.

Whale Rider's Caro steers the story robustly, yet frequent shots of children and small animals in distress ensure heartstrings are plucked with formulaic regularity. On the plus side, production designer Suzie Davies' recreation of the ghettos is striking. Performance-wise, Brühl draws the short straw as a two-dimensional Nazi but Heldenbergh adds real substance. And Chastain? With her credible Polish accent, she's typically present, although – like the film itself – more solid than spectacular.

Selected release from Fri 21 Apr.

The Zookeeper's Wife

  • 3 stars
  • 2017
  • US / UK
  • 2h 7min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Niki Caro
  • Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl

The true story of Antonina Jabinski (Chastain) and her husband Jan (Heldenbergh), who ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and who used it to shelter Jews from the Nazis during WW2. Director Caro steers the story robustly if predictably, and it’s a solid and worthy story if nothing spectacular.