This story is beautifully filmed and important, but it suffers from an affliction that many period films based on a single central figure endure: No one except the main character truly comes alive. And while Chastain is captivating in the title role, even Antonina remains somewhat opaque. Her deep love for those she cares for -- both animals and people -- is quickly explained by a short scene late in the film, almost as if someone was checking off a cinematic "to do" list. Everyone else in The Zookeeper's Wife, meanwhile, feels somewhat paint-by-numbers, including both Jan and the Jewish men, women, and children to whom the Zabinskis offer sanctuary. Only one of them, Urszula (Shira Haas), has texture and complexity, and even then, we still don't really get to know her story.
The movie is strongest when it focuses on the Zabinski home and the zoo; the bond between the family and their animals is palpable from the start, when we see their son napping next to a lion cub. But outside of that relative haven, the world is hard and broken, and these sections of the film are less effective, with director Niki Caro relying on visuals we've seen before in many other films about World War II and the Holocaust. Still, The Zookeeper's Wife will likely affect viewers deeply, offering a reminder that cruelty and brutality of this magnitude once had the capability to rob humans of their empathy and, well, humanity. Thankfully it also offers the reminder that there are always bold souls who will brave the fray and fight for what's right. It's an important, and sobering, lesson to re-learn.