Susan Granger’s review of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus Features)
As years go by, more and more poignant survival stories that have been buried in Holocaust history are surfacing.
This one begins on a beautiful day in 1939 at Poland’s Warsaw Zoo, where Antonia Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is helping her husband Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenberg) tend the animals. That afternoon, she resuscitates a newborn elephant calf who cannot breathe – with its distraught mother’s at her side.
But then German aircraft appear overhead, and bombs reign down, killing many of the terrified beasts, while others escape to roam the city’s streets.
Led by Berlin’s chief zoologist, sinister Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Nazis commandeer the grounds, saving only “prize specimens” for selective breeding, savagely slaughtering the rest.
Meanwhile, within the city, the Jewish population is being herded into a ghetto, locked behind barbed wire to starve or, later, be loaded on boxcars and sent to concentration camps.
Appalled at the brutality, Antonia and Jan come up with defiant plan. Since the German soldiers love pork, they’ll turn the zoo into a pig farm, feeding the animals garbage from the ghetto.
While Antonia cares for their dwindling menagerie, Jan drives his truck into the ghetto, where he hides Jews in bins, covering them with refuse and smuggling them into his human sanctuary, where they hide until the Resistance forges papers and transports them to safety.
Since Lutz Heck often makes unexpected visits to the zoo, it’s up to Antonia to keep him distracted, as jealous Jan observes from a distance.
While Jessica Chastain (“Miss Sloane,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) radiates beatific compassion, Angela Workman’s perfunctory script is a flaccid, almost antiseptic adaption of Diane Ackerman’s haunting 2007 non-fiction book.
Sensitively helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), the most memorable moments include Antonia’s empathy with a traumatized Jewish teenager (Shira Haas) who was raped by German soldiers – as the tension mounts.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is nobly stoic 7, heralding one brave couple’s unobtrusive heroics.