The Zookeeper’s Wife may be based on a true story–as recounted in Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book of the same name–but at heart, it’s all movie. That’s both good and bad. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who, with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), saved more than 300 Jewish residents of the Warsaw ghetto during the German invasion of Poland. In better times, the couple had run the Warsaw Zoo, a vibrant place filled with healthy, well-loved animals. When the Nazis moved in, the Zabinskis fought back. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) depicts their bravery as simple human decency, a series of small gestures that never aspire to greatness.
But deeply earnest pictures aren’t always great ones, and this movie’s plot mechanics sometimes grind it down. The actors, at least, keep it breathing. Heldenbergh’s face has the gravity of a solid, steady heartbeat. And Chastain is so radiant, it’s as if her character has somehow captured and retained light to be dispersed gradually in darker times. That’s a kind of bravery too.
This appears in the April 10, 2017 issue of TIME.
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