The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski who helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews during German occupation of Poland in 1939. Whisking people out of the ghettos, and opening their home to strangers until the 1945, they were two of the unsung civilian heroes of WWII. The story is in good hands with New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and its leading lady Jessica Chastain who plays Antonina.

Antonia works side by side with her husband Jan (John Heldenbergh) taking care of the animals of the zoo. All of this changes one day when Antonina rides her bike up to the front gates, and hears planes circling Warsaw. Soon the bombs begin to drop, and the zoo erupts into chaos. As one of the most powerful, tragic, and impressively staged scenes of the movie animals are the real victims in this setting. One doesn’t usually immediately think of this kind of collateral damage when thinking of victims of war.

When all the dust is settled on the countless animals left dead after the attack, Antonina and Jan begin to pick up the pieces of their Zoo left in ruins. With the help of a German Zoologist named Lutz Keck (Daniel Brühl) , most of the surviving animals are transferred to the Berlin Zoo for safe keeping until the war is over. With an empty zoo Antonina sees it as an opportunity to help her Jewish friends, who have been moved to a local ghetto by the German forces. Soon Antonina and Jan open up the rest of their home to more Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto.

Yes, the film feels like well-worn territory, but that doesn’t distract from the great performance by Chastain (who’s yet to be bad in anything she’s done), and the remarkable true events it’s based on. Look for a great supporting turn from Brühl, who plays the German Zoologist turned Nazi. He shares most of his scenes with Chastain’s Antonina. His dangerous presence of possibly discovering what Antonia has been up to in the zoo brings some of memorable tension, and raises the stakes.

This might not be the award vehicle to win Jessica Chastain an Oscar next year, but it’s still terrific work. Outside her performance the film itself as a whole is a little by the numbers as far as WWII movies about the holocaust go. It doesn’t quite have the emotional devastation a film like Son of Saul has, or the traumatic authenticity of its companion film Schindler’s List. The film’s shortcomings however never cancel out the important story it has to tell. After all can a period of history this dark ever have enough stories to tell an audience?

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