(out of 5)
Warsaw’s zoo is run by a happily married couple who see it destroyed in the September 1939 German invasion, then have it taken over by Nazi forces led by a Berlin zookeeper (Daniel Brühl) who was their friend in peacetime. Seeing an opportunity to help save the lives of Jewish friends in the city, Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh, Jessica Chastain) convince their overseer to let them turn the grounds into a pig farm using garbage from the Jewish ghetto as slops for the animals, which is actually their method of helping people escape with new, forged documents to safety. The story is based on a real one, and the Zabinskis eventually saved around three hundred people who lived on their property for varying amounts of time, sleeping quietly in the cellar during the day while soldiers patrolled the grounds before moving about at night in relative safety. Chastain gives an elegant, perfectly pitched performance as a woman terrified for herself and her family but unable to resist doing what she considers a natural human duty, her work the outstanding element of a film that has very few sequences that are particularly memorable; overall there’s a general sense of tension but few sharp moments of climax despite the peril these characters are in. The danger that Chastain puts her personal life into when she has to play nice with Bruhl to keep the operation going is played so safe that it’s hard to believe it won’t turn out well; the shot of young Shira Haas (who is excellent) after she has been brutalized by German soldiers is the only time the films dare to share its horrors explicitly. The pre-war moments show more directorial pizzazz than the darker stuff, Chastain helping birth an elephant has much more drama to it than a lot of scenes of danger that are resolved quickly and with surprising ease. Despite letting you off so easy, it’s a moving story and has a touching, satisfying conclusion, but don’t be surprised if you feel like you just watched a polished Hallmark movie with higher production values than usual.
Directed by Niki Caro
Cinematography by Andrij Parekh
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
Production Design by Suzie Davies
Costume Design by Bina Daigeler
Film Editing by David Coulson