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The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Humanity’s inhumanity is a common feature across many cinematic genres, often contrasted with compassion and sympathy. The Zookeeper’s Wife joins the sub-genre of Holocaust dramas, at times feeling like an odd combination of Schindler’s List and the first act of Life of Pi. Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) is the eponymous spouse of Dr Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), curators of the Warsaw Zoo before and during the Nazi occupation of Poland, who hide Jews in the zoo’s facilities. The early scenes of the film are the most effective, as director Niki Caro presents the zoo as an idyllic setting and Antonina as an ideal maternal figure both to humans and animals. A bombing sequence is presented from the perspective of the zoo animals: tigers, camels and zebras (among others) panicking and escaping, before being shot by soldiers in genuinely distressing moments. Unfortunately, the film fails to draw effective parallels between cruelty to humans and animals, perhaps limited by the true events upon which the source novel by Diane Ackerman is based. The subsequent concealment of Jews and the network of resistance allows for some tense moments, but antagonist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) is too peripheral to be more than occasionally menacing. The final act of the film also drags and, while there are moving moments such as Antonina comforting a victimised girl with a rabbit, the end result is uneven. The story is remarkable and much of the film is handsomely mounted, but Caro’s handling of it is ultimately unsatisfying.

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