Jessica Chastain is great in everything she’s in but this one didn’t quite come together for whatever reason. There was essentially nothing new here storytelling wise and played things a little too safe for me. (original review)
Synopsis: The time is 1939. The place is Poland, homeland of Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński. Devoted to each other, the couple thrive as personal and professional partners; the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. With reserves of energy, Antonina rises every day to tend to both her family and their menagerie, as the gates to the majestic zoo open in welcome. (Elevation Pictures)
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, and Daniel Bruhl
Writer: Angela Workman
Director: Niki Caro
Rating: 14A (Canada)/PG-13 (United States)
Running Time: 124mins
In terms of historical dramas, this one did not offer anything new when it came to storytelling, making it all seem very familiar. The film is about a couple named Antonina (Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Heldenbergh) who own a zoo in Warsaw, Poland in 1939. Antonina loves her zoo and her animals but things quickly changed when the owner of a German zoo, a man named Lutz Heck (Bruhl), comes to town and appeared to be interested in Antonina. WWII was looming in the area and finally came to Warsaw.
It was a dangerous time, obviously, with war planes flying by and bombs being dropped throughout the city. Concerned about her animals, Heck offers to take her most valuable animals to protect them but he had different intentions and wanted to breed them and eliminate all others. Once the Nazis invaded Warsaw, they saw the value of the Zabiniskis’ zoo and wanted to take it over. Instead, they suggested that they work together by raising pigs for the soldiers. Little did they know, they were using their zoo and their house to hide Polish jews from persecution.
As Jan was working behind the scenes, Antonina begrudgingly worked with Lutz with his breeding projects. She pretty much did not have a choice since she was frightened and alone since Jan was seldom home. The longer they worked together, the more Heck made advances towards Antonina which she always refused, causing some tension between her and Jan.
Through Jan, we got a glimpse of the Warsaw ghetto before, during, and after the war. It showed the poor masses of jews being persecuted by the Nazis while living in complete desolation. He couldn’t stand what was happening to them so he took it upon himself to harbour less fortunate Polish jews in his zoo until they found a safe house. During an already dangerous time, he put himself and Antonina at risk but this just showed their great courage and their dedication towards others.
Over the course of the film, we met some of these families and heard of their stories, the most notable of those being that of a girl named Urszula (Shira Haas), who was left beaten and raped by German soldiers. She represented the plight of the Polish jews and the great lengths the Zabinskis took to protect them. Whether or not the hiding jews would be found was kind of exciting but that didn’t last forever. Heck began to get suspicious of Antonina which was only made worse by her constant rejections of his advances. The last group of jews made it out safely but it felt like the film gave up at the end.
The acting was good across the board with Chastain captivating as Antonina. Her accent did take some getting used to, however, but she was still very likable. The love she had for her animals was palpable. She had excellent chemistry with Heldenbergh, making their relationship real and believable. This made them compelling to watch together. He was just as caring as she was and he was just as afflicted by what was happening. Bruhl was the weakest of the three because his character was either underwritten or overwritten.
Overall, this was a decent historical drama with familiar and safe storytelling that never got too low but never got very high either which may leave some bored but is elevated by its performances.