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Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife – “Moving, shocking and yet strangely hopeful”

I almost didn’t see this film and something tells me I’m not alone in this. I was away the first week it arrived in cinemas (which made it tricky) but overall, I heard very little about it. Nobody was talking about it. It just sort of came and went without much hoorah. However, because I’d read half of the book already and been hugely impressed by what I’d read, I went out of my way and managed to find one screening nearby. And I’m so grateful that I did.

Directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, this film is based on the true story of Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan as they smuggle Jews out of war-torn Poland during World War II by hiding them in their zoo. Some stayed a few days, some stayed far longer.

The film is heartbreaking, terrifying and hugely upsetting and doesn’t shy away from the horror of what was happening at the time and how much the couple (and their young son) had to ignore in order to achieve what they did. Yet, somehow, the film is also incredibly beautiful, touching and full of warmth.

Jessica Chastain is a revelation. I have enjoyed her previous work but this is the first time where all I could think about was all the award love she deserves for her performance. She conveys so much when saying so little, is bold and fierce whilst also being quiet and stoic, and clearly she never heard that story about not working with animals or children…

The supporting cast are all brilliant, too, but it is Daniel Brühl who is sure to get under your skin. He is unsettling throughout as Lutz Heck and you feel Antonina’s repulsion right alongside her every time she is forced to be in his company.

Unlike most films based on books where I tend to read before I watch, it’s a relief that I had only actually managed to read half of Diane Ackerman’s book before managing to see it. You need to watch this film in a constant state of anxiety to better understand what they went through and how they managed to go on despite their constant and debilitating fear of discovery.

Caro’s directing is both sensitive and daring. She knows when to hold back and when to let the horror out of its cage. Antonina and Jan (and all those who hid in their home) deserved to have their stories told and told this way. This is superb work, both in front of and behind the camera. Moving, shocking and yet strangely hopeful, too.


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