The Zookeeper’s Wife

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The Zookeeper’s Wife

Runtime 126 minutes
OK for children

The time is 1939; the place is  Warsaw (the film was shot in the abandoned fortress town of Josefov, a couple of hours outside of Prague, in the Czech Republic). Anybody educated in the 20th Century will realize that the disastrous invasion of Poland by the Nazis is about to occur (Sept. 1, 1939), so tension fills the air.

Antonina ?abi?ska (Jessica Chastain, in what is by far her best performance) is a working wife and mother who, along with her husband, Dr. Jan ?abi?ski (Johan Heldenbergh), run the Warsaw zoo.

When the Nazis overrun the country, one of their friends, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) is appointed the Reich’s chief zoologist. Heck has a crush on Antonina who plays him because she and Jan have determined to use the underground cages and tunnels, created for their animals, as a place to hide Jews.

Well directed by Niki Caro from a good script (Angela Workman), adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book based on Antonina’s diaries, the tension is thick throughout and the pace never lets up. The recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto (last seen in Roman Polanski’s 2003 The Pianist) and the scenes therein are aching to watch.

There is one fictional character in the movie, Urszula, a Jewish orphan who is raped by two Wermacht soldiers in the ghetto, played by Shira Haas. Her performance is one that stays with you long after the movie ends.

Greatly aiding the efficacy of the film is the score (Harry Gregson-Williams) that enhances the tension almost to the breaking point.

What makes this all the more amazing is that the zoo was filled with German soldiers throughout the occupation. What the ?abi?skis did and accomplished was heroism of the highest order, and it’s astounding to see.

The only complaint I have about the movie is that the Zookeeper, Dr. Jan, was just as heroic as his wife. Why isn’t the film (and the book) entitled simply “The Zookeepers?” Why single out Antonina and leave out her husband. He was the person who went inside the Ghetto each day to sneak Jews out, which was the most dangerous part of what they did.

In theaters:

Beauty and the Beast (4 out of 5 Swans): A terrific entertainment combining live action with animation; the outstanding production numbers and orchestration make up for mediocre melody. Romantic enough, I thought Dan Stevens had a lot more sex appeal as the Beast (achieved through performance and facial capture technology, not makeup) than as the Prince. Visual and special effects are award quality.

Kong: Skull Island (4 out of 5 Swans) Well directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (only his second film), the special effects, production design, and cinematography alone are worth the price of admission, buttressed by the symphonic score that greatly enhances the action. And they should be since the estimated cost of production is around $185 million. Final kudos should go to the editor. I’m constantly carping about films needing good editing. This one got it, thanks to Richard Pearson.

The Last Word (3 out of 5 Swans): Shirley MacLaine plays an octogenarian who knows who she is and is unapologetic. She does not suffer fools gladly, especially her estranged daughter, and walks all over everyone without a smidgen of concern for their feelings. She is accompanied on this journey by Amanda Seyfried and AnnJewel Lee Dixon, who plays a streetwise, foul-mouthed young girl. Both give good performances but MacLaine stands out. While similar in concept to last year’s The Meddler, in which Susan Sarandon was enormously annoying without a single redeeming feature, in this one MacLaine eventually wins the viewer over – a much, much better written, better directed and better acted movie.

Wilson (1 out of 5 Swans): Warning! This is a movie for nobody. It is violent, profane, and without any redeeming social interest. I liked Woody Harrelson when he appeared on Cheers.  But nobody could make this movie entertaining.

Norman is basically imbecilic with no people talent whatsoever. It’s never explained how he makes a living or survives. He’s just a character around which Johnson and writer Daniel Cloves have built an uninvolving story about unlikeable characters and absurdly contrived events.

As far as I can see there is no reason to go to see this, just as there was no reason to make it or release it. I would love to have heard how they pitched this to people who had to put up the money to make it.

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