Watched: 27 August

New Zealand director Niki Caro – hitherto best known for her 2002 breakthrough Whale Rider – takes on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book for her sixth film. Set initially on the cusp of World War II as Germany prepares to invade Poland, it stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina, one of the two keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, who in real life safely rescued and then successfully hid or aided the escape of over 300 Polish Jews during the course of the war. Caro and Chastain downplay this heroism to a certain extent, while still recognising and acknowledging that while it was an extraordinary effort to save such a large number of people over a sustained period of time; instead the emphasis is very much on the daily concern that the Nazis would discover the secret hiding places within the zoo and kill everyone involved, which is understandable given the various scenarios that can be employed in order to raise the tension. The Nazi threat is personified by Daniel Brühl’s Dr. Lutz Heck, Chief of the Berlin Zoo and a man personally appointed by Adolf Hitler as his head zoologist; aside from the considerable power Heck wields, he also wants to take Antonina as his wife, and his increasingly seedy and desperate advances provide the Polish woman with even more headaches (while also oddly relating to German fortunes during the conflict, especially after the tide turns in favour of Poland’s allies elsewhere). I’m left a little frustrated by it, overall, as there’s the nagging sense that it could have been better, and less reliant on the fate of one child in particular in terms of the way that the story is told. That said it’s well acted – Chastain is one of the safest bets out there at present – and the director and cinematographer both excel when trying to shift our perception of the zoo itself, turning it from a place of entertainment and happiness into a surreal, war-torn environment in which animals are sadly little more than collateral damage. Caro also employs a few strange shots depicting escaped zoo animals as they wander, perhaps dazed, around ordinary Warsaw streets, that have stuck with me. (***)