Friday, March 31, 2017

More Holocaust-lite, as Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE opens wide theatrically

Both like and unlike Fanny's Journey, another Holocaust-lite movie that recently opened, THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE resembles that French young-adult film in that its view of World War II and the Nazi extermination of the Jews is rendered with much less violence and horror than in many other Holocaust movies you're likely to have seen.

On the other hand, this big-budget U.S./UK/Czech Republic production is not the "family" movie some audiences may expect of this tale of the wife of the zookeeper in Warsaw, Poland, who manages, against all odds and expectations, to save quite a number of Jews during the war -- even as she fails to protect many of the zoo animals that she and her husband so love and nurture.

Children and animal lovers alike will recoil in horror as some of these beasts are slaughtered, so be warned. With a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, and directed by Niki Caro (shown at right), the movie does not bypass the Nazi extermination (we see an elderly mother and her daughter both executed at close range), but it keeps this to a minimum -- which actually adheres rather closely to the facts, since we told during the film's end credits that, of the hundred of people saved who passed through this zoo, only those two women were caught and killed.

Ms Caro, a New Zealander with an up-and-down record, so far as directing and box-office are concerned -- Whale Rider is probably her most critically lauded film and McFarland, USA her most successful at the U.S. box-office -- remains a favorite of TrustMovies, if only for her majestic (and majestically crazy) film, A Heavenly Vintage -- which, if you have not seen, you simply must.

I would guess that The Zookeeper's Wife might be her biggest-budget effort so far, and the film's look and production values are stellar. So's her star, Jessica Chastain (above), who's always good and here acquits herself here with the usual talent and beauty this actress possesses in spades. (Her Eastern-European-inflected accent's pretty good, as well.)

Her zoo-keeping hubby is played by Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (above, of the Oscar-nominated Broken Circle Breakdown), while her antagonist is portrayed with lip-smacking relish by the talented German actor, Daniel Brühl (below).

The screenplay adheres closely to the paint-by-numbers, this-happened-and-then-that-happened mode, yet the story told grabs us from the outset -- as we meet the main characters and the zoo animals -- and then carries us along through plenty of thrills, suspense and Hollywood movie moments that are obvious and predictable.

Yet along the way, Ms Caro, provides some wonderful stuff -- the most memorable of which is a scene in which the Polish Jews are finally to be deported to the concentration camps. Here, a group of children, so far saved from obliteration, are now to be placed in the rail cars that will take them to their death. Unknowing of this, they look to the two men who have provided their safety and caring and outstretch their arms with loving, smiling faces to be lifted up onto the train. This is a scene that I shall never forget.

While I wish the film were better, I am still grateful that it has reached the screen, as its tale is one worth telling, especially amidst our current times with Holocaust denial on the rise internationally, and here in the USA, the Trump administration telling ever bigger and bolder lies.

So see the movie, take the kids (the older ones, at least), and then talk about the whole experience afterward. From Focus Features and running a lengthy but full-of-incident 124 minutes, The Zookeeper's Wife opened nationwide this week. Click here to find the theater nearest you.

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