Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) has the rare ability to elevate what could be emotionally manipulative schlock to earnest art. Now she's brought her skills to a period piece about the Warsaw Zoo's husband-wife caretakers who trafficked hundreds of Jews out of the Nazi-controlled ghettos. True to form, Caro seems unbound by her audience's expectations of a WWII picture; she delivers a singular, thrilling portrait, filled with surprises and moving performances.
It's 1939, and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) run -- and live inside -- a world-class zoo in the center of the Polish capital. Their bliss is quickly overwhelmed with trepidation after young Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) becomes smitten with Antonina at a party. She and Jan aren't Jewish, but most of their friends and neighbors are.
Caro swiftly moves the story along -- it spans 1939-1946. Soon, Warsaw's being invaded: Bombs rain over the zoo; soldiers gun down an elephant; a camel totters around in circles; monkeys shriek, trapped in their cages.
Chastain is especially affecting as the broken but hopeful heroine. And Caro's careful to prosecute that willful ignorance -- one of the most uncomfortable scenes is less than five seconds long and depicts a nice Polish woman posing for a picture in front of the ghettos, a tourist of other people's suffering. Sometimes it's difficult to believe we need yet another WWII biopic, but The Zookeeper's Wife is so wholly indelible that it makes the case for more, not less.