Hu­mane be­hav­iour coun­ters beastly evil in wartime War­saw

National Post (National Edition) - - POST MOVIES - CHRIS KNIGHT

I can­not re­mem­ber the last time a film opened on such an idyl­lic note. Jes­sica Chas­tain, her shim­mer­ing skin com­ple­mented by a flow­ery sun­dress, is bi­cy­cling through a small but well kept and well stocked zoo, her hair bil­low­ing in the breeze. Ele­phants gam­bol; lions stand to­gether com­pan­ion­ably; mon­keys frolic. But wait, is that — yes, a baby camel, gal­lop­ing hap­pily af­ter her!

Clearly, things have to get worse. And here comes the sub­ti­tle: War­saw. Sum­mer. 1939. Things are about to get much, much worse.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on a 2007 non-fic­tion book by Diane Ack­er­man, tells the true story of An­ton­ina and Jan Zabin­ska, who were run­ning the War­saw Zoo when the Sec­ond World War be­gan. When the Nazis in­vaded Poland, the zoo was dam­aged by bomb­ing; many of the an­i­mals were killed, and the best of the rest were re­lo­cated to Ber­lin.

In a sub­plot that surely de­serves its own movie, Ger­man an­i­mal re­searcher Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) has a plan to res­ur­rect the au­roch, a wild cow that went ex­tinct in 1627. In An­gela Work­man’s script, “Hitler’s head zo­ol­o­gist” is re­duced to the two-di­men­sional vil­lain that ti­tle im­plies.

But enough about an­i­mals. With their zoo now de­void of its reg­u­lar oc­cu­pants, An­ton­ina and her hus­band (Jo­han Helden­bergh, whom you may know from The Bro­ken Cir­cle Break­down) more or less stum­ble into a scheme to hide fugi­tive Jews in the base­ment and in parts of the zoo it­self. Soon, one lodger turns into many.

Trav­el­ling to the War­saw ghetto to col­lect scraps for the pig farm now on the zoo grounds, Jan re­turns with refugees, some of whom stay for the du­ra­tion of the war, while oth­ers move on to dif­fer­ent safe houses. All this un­der the nose of Lutz, who is quickly de­vel­op­ing his own an­i­mal at­trac­tion to An­ton­ina. She tol­er­ates him out of ne­ces­sity.

As di­rected by Niki Caro, the ac­tion skips through the years of the war, touch­ing down ev­ery few months for a bit of drama. There’s a young wo­man, still in shock from be­ing raped by Ger­man soldiers, nursed back to san­ity by the kindly An­ton­ina, who gives her a pet rab­bit. There’s a scene in which the guests in the base­ment are al­most caught. There’s an older man who con­sis­tently re­fuses Jan’s of­fers to res­cue him, be­cause he needs to look af­ter the ghetto’s chil­dren.

It’s all very dra­matic, very se­ri­ous and (with a few ex­cep­tions) quite san­i­tized. It’s also just a lit­tle too pret­tily shot for the dire sub­ject mat­ter. This is es­sen­tially Schindler’s List in a zoo; and, like Oskar Schindler, the Zabin­skas would re­ceive the hon­orific of Right­eous Among the Na­tions for their ac­tions.

But the film con­sis­tently averts its gaze from the more hor­rific as­pects of the Holo­caust, and in­cludes an al­most com­i­cal num­ber of shots of the an­gelic An­ton­ina cradling a small an­i­mal — I counted seven, in­clud­ing an ele­phant, a bunny, a skunk, a lion cub, a wolf pup, a pig and, in one scene, a monkey who is hold­ing a smaller monkey.

Per­haps the prob­lem is that the bliss­ful mood of that open­ing scene lingers on through the film. On the plus side, its 14A rat­ing in On­tario means it could func­tion as an in­tro­duc­tion to the Holo­caust for more ma­ture chil­dren, with­out com­pletely scar­ring them. And it re­mains an in­cred­i­ble tale of hu­mane be­hav­iour coun­ter­ing a beastly evil. ∂∂∂

The Zookeeper’s Wife opens March 31 across Canada.

ANNE MARIE FOX / FO­CUS FEA­TURES VIA AP

Jes­sica Chas­tain stars as An­ton­ina Zabin­ska in direc­tor Niki Caro's adap­ta­tion of The Zookeeper's Wife.

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