Blu-ray Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

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Director Niki Caro has crafted a visually sumptuous film that happens to concern abhorrent subject matter. The Zookeeper's Wife tells the harrowing true story of the Warsaw Zoo during the German invasion (and subsequent occupation) of Poland. The zoo, operated by Dr. Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina (portrayed here by Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain), was devastated by the September 1, 1939 bombings that marked the beginning of World War II. As the so-called "superior" animals are commandeered by Hitler's zoologist Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) for experimental breeding, with most of the remaining animals mercilessly slaughtered, Jan and Antonina's zoo is no more. 

rsz_zookeepers_wife_2.jpg It should come as no surprise that The Zookeeper's Wife (now available on Blu-ray) isn't light viewing. The mowing down of innocent, scared, defenseless animals will leave all but the most-hardened viewers emotional wrecks. In fact, while obviously essential to this particular chapter of WWII history, the 'animals in peril' theme probably contributed to Wife's struggle at the box office. But the story of how the Żabińskis risked their lives to provide safe harbor to hundreds of Jewish individuals is worth seeing (some have dubbed it "Schlinder's List with animals," which sells the film short). Chastain delivers a deeply-felt performance as Antonina, caught between sustaining her marriage while placating the advances of the ever-manipulative Heck. 
 
Zookeepers Wife daniel bruhl.jpg With all the extra space in their now vacant zoo, Jan convinces Heck to allow he and Antonina to raise pigs—ostensibly to provide food for the occupying forces. The regularly-scheduled collection of trash from the Warsaw Ghetto (the pigs eat whatever slop they're fed) provides sufficient cover for the smuggling of Jews, right under the noses of the Nazi guards. As all this unfolds, a feeling of narrative inertia sets in that slows things to a near halt at times. Perhaps there wasn't enough meat in Angela Workman's screenplay (based on Diane Ackerman's 2007 novel of the same name) to sustain a 126-minute running time. However, this is a class project through and through (the cinematography by Andrij Parekh is striking—and looks fantastic on Universal Studio's Blu-ray), as is Harry Gregson-Williams' stirring score (well presented in the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix) 

Zookeepers Wife jessica chastain.jpg Speaking of the Blu-ray, there is a modest selection of special features present. Six deleted scenes total about four minutes. There's also a pair of short featurettes: "The Making of The Zookeeper's Wife" (a standard-issue overview that runs about seven minutes) and "The Żabiński Family" (at four minutes, a too-short discussion with the descendants of the film's real-life heroes that is well worth the time).

The sometimes meandering story keeps The Zookeeper's Wife from being a truly great film, but the understated performances, top-notch production values, and importance of the subject matter make it an overall valuable one.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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