The tragic tale of a woman caught up in the invasion of Poland and her brave actions to smuggle out Jews from the Warsaw ghetto is moving and disturbing but does come up short in some aspects. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) is amazing with animals birthing elephants and calming down tigers, but when the Germans invade Poland, her animals are killed in bombs or put to death by the Nazis. Hitler's chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) takes an interest in Antonina and the zoo, hoping to breed strong bulls of legend. Meanwhile, Antonina's husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) works to smuggle out the Jews trapped in the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in the tunnels beneath their house.
The movie shows how those who were not directly involved suddenly had their lives upheaved when the Nazis awful plans came to action. Even though the Zabinski's were not Jewish, many of their friends and neighbors found their houses taken and their lives at risk by the ruthless soldiers. Jan receives help from a Polish government worker and develops a plan walking right past the guard using the excuse that he was bringing the men and women out of the ghetto to work for him. The refugees have to hide during the day as the Zabinski's employ a chef and soldiers prowl the ground searching for escapees. Antonina plays the piano to warn them when they have unexpected visitors and let them know it is safe to come out at night.
The resistance grows as the brutal dictatorship demands more and ships out Jews to the internment camps. Lutz Heck develops suspicions as Jan Zabinski becomes jealous of his wife's flirtations. Their son Rysard (Timothy Radford & Val Maloku) learns anti-Nazi chants and can't help himself when accosted by Lutz. Only two Jewish women who stayed at the zoo ended up murdered when they are turned in by the operator of a boarding house. Jan joins up with Polish soldier and is shot in the throat. He is shipped off to a prison camp as the Nazi's retreat back to Germany.
Antonina is forced to survive on her own after giving birth to a second child, a daughter. She struggles to find her husband and goes to Lutz for help. He realizes that she has been hiding something and orders troops to search her house, but not before she tells all the Jewish people to leave. They escape but Rysard's life is threatened when Lutz discovers the paintings beneath the house. The film strives for the emotional resonance of other World War II films but also tells an uplifting story.
I'm not familiar with the book or know the historical accuracy of the tale. It felt very moving at times as this was one of the greatest atrocities of mankind, but it is distant from the true devastation as the Zabinski's were not Jewish. The depiction of the confusion of animals during wartime was also heartbreaking and show the stupidity and cruelty of human beings. Chastain's performance is not too terrible, the commercials make her accent seem really off the wall, but it is not too jarring. I found enough to enjoy and the film never feels very slow. A mediocre film that tells a powerful story.