Jessica Chastain Is ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’; ‘All This Panic’ Chronicles N.Y. Teens – Specialty Box Office Preview

Focus Features is taking The Zookeeper’s Wife starring Jessica Chastain into well over several hundred theaters this weekend, the highest-profile Specialty release in a weekend that includes the debuts of some very limited releases. Two documentaries are among the slate of newcomers: God Knows Where I Am, the directorial debut of producers Jedd Wider and Todd Wider, and All This Panic, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and begins its theatrical run in New York today.

China Lion is opening thriller The Devotion of Suspect X in over forty locations. In limited release this weekend is The Orchard’s Carrie Pilby starring Bel Powley in a day and date bow. Reliance Films is opening Indian action spy thriller Naam Shabana, while Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award winner Here Alone from Vertical Entertainment will begin its theatrical run. Drama Tony Conrad will open at New York’s Anthology Film Archive, and Arrow Releasing will re-release the 2001 fantasy feature Donnie Darko. Newmarket originally opened the latter, which helped propel Jake Gyllenhaal to stardom. The film has cumed over $1.2M in its various releases.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Angela Workman, Diane Ackerman (book)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Timothy Radford, Iddo Goldberg, Efrat Dor, Shira Haas,
Distributor: Focus Features

Filmmaker Niki Caro was approached by producers of The Zookeeper’s Wife with a script from Angela Workman. Caro felt that the story “had the potential to become a new kind of Holocaust movie emphasizing kindness and compassion.” Noted Caro: “Like most, I had never heard the name Antonina Zabinska, let alone the remarkable role she played in history…The Zabinskis connection to animal life, their radical humanity, and their determination to do what was right even at huge risk to themselves and their family, was hugely inspiring to me.”

Set in Poland in 1939 and based on the New York Times best-seller, the film follows Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) who oversee the flourishing Warsaw Zoo. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance to save lives of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and her children at great risk.

The script went through a “couple of drafts,” according to Caro before approaching Jessica Chastain for the lead. The actress “said yes immediately,” according to the filmmaker.

“Shooting in Warsaw was out of the question, as 90% of the city had been destroyed in the war,” explained Caro. “Prague was a great alternative, in that we could recreate 1930s Warsaw, a thriving, cosmopolitan city known as ‘the Paris of the North.’ The biggest production challenge was how we were going to express a Belle Epoch zoo. Although we did explore it, there was no way we could shoot in a real zoo. From a production design perspective, no modern zoo was ever going to be period accurate, let alone be able to withstand the stages of destruction required to express the war years.”

Instead, the production set out to find a place to create their own zoo. Production Designer Suzie Davies found a neglected exhibition park near the center of the Czech capital and from there, the team created their own zoo.

On the promotion side, the film’s trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife bowed November 23, targeting adult audiences attending Allied, Nocturnal Animals, Loving, La La Land, Lion and Fifty Shades Darker, according to Focus Features, which picked up the title in the script stage in summer 2015. The company has been getting the word out ahead of the feature’s release through various institutions including U.S. Jewish film festivals, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the Anne Frank Center & Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, UJA Federations of Los Angeles and New York and International Rescue Committee.

In addition to media focused on Chastain, there were digital activations surrounding International Women’s Day on March 8 including custom content features like a Facebook Live chat with the actress and Caro in addition to other events.

Jessica Chastain in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Credit Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

Review: In ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ the Holocaust Seems Tame

“‘Schindler’s List’ With Pets”: That’s my suggested alternate title for “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” This mild-mannered Holocaust film probably wasn’t conceived as family fare but is so timid and sanitized it almost feels safe for children.

Except for its scenes involving animals, this handsome, excessively fastidious screen adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction best seller is a polite but pallid recycling of Holocaust movie tropes with epic pretensions. The book tells the true story of a Polish couple who rescued about 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust and sheltered them in their zoo.

What does it say that the most stirring scenes in a movie that avoids graphic depictions of Nazi barbarism involve the heroic title character, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain), lovingly interacting with the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, which she runs with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh)?

In these tender moments, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), from an anemic screenplay by Angela Workman, shucks off its modesty and transforms into the sentimental portrait of a beautiful woman and the animals she cares for like a devoted parent. You can trust animals, but not people, she declares.

Her beloved charges get more screen time than the Jews whose lives the couple saves and who mostly remain anonymous, their personal stories left untold. They creep out of hiding and convene like a ghostly family when Antonina signals them by playing the piano.

The most emotional scene has nothing to do with Nazis, Jews or the Holocaust. In this surefire set piece, which feels shoehorned into the film, Antonina saves the life of a baby elephant to which she administers CPR, risking being trampled by the adorable creature’s agitated mother. Otherwise, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” plays like a medium-gloss rerun of other more gripping depictions of Nazi evil and Jewish suffering.

It at least sustains a cool pictorial grandeur in its portrayal of the Nazi invasion of Poland as bombers sweep the skies and armored tanks roll into Warsaw as the city erupts in panic, its peace and quiet shattered in one horrifying instant. As bombs rain on the zoo, the frightened, confused animals run wild in the streets, and amid the chaos an elephant is shot.

After the invasion, Antonina and Jan are greeted with unctuous cordiality by Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a suave Nazi zoologist who offers to transport the zoo’s most prized animals to Berlin for safekeeping. During their stay, he says, he plans to use them for selective breeding.

To keep the zoo from being closed, the quick-witted couple come up with the idea of converting it into a hog farm, which would produce meat to feed the German soldiers. The animals subsist on garbage retrieved from the Warsaw ghetto in daily truck runs. Jan’s plan is to smuggle Jews hidden under the refuse to the zoo, where they are secreted in the basement of the house occupied by the family, which includes their young son, Ryszard (played at different ages by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku).

There are ample opportunities for the movie to stir up fear each time the truck leaves the ghetto, but the film has little appetite for cliffhanging suspense. The fugitives who emerge from under the garbage don’t look much the worse for wear. Although not without moments of terror and desperation, the screenplay’s leisurely timing subverts their dramatic impact.

A subplot involves Antonina’s precarious balancing act as she charms the besotted Lutz, and resists surrendering to his increasingly aggressive moves as her jealous husband watches nervously from a distance. The screenplay is so frightened of this material that it isn’t always clear whether she has succumbed. But as Lutz evolves from a charmer into a bad, bad Nazi, the question of did she or didn’t she give in seems a feeble attempt to pump romantic excitement into a drama in dire need of moral complexity.

Ms. Chastain’s watchful, layered performance helps keep the film on an even keel, but it is not enough to prevent “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” with its reassuringly cuddly critters, from feeling like a Disney version of the Holocaust.

‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ shows what true courage is

The fate of a Warsaw zoo during the Nazi occupation might seem like a tiny historical footnote, but as director Niki Caro’s handsome drama shows, the way people treat animals is a good indicator of how they’ll treat human beings. “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a true story, is about a Polish woman who turned the bombed-out zoo she ran with her husband into a hiding place for Jews fleeing the spiraling horrors of the occupied city.

Jessica Chastain glows as the title character, Antonina, who counts among her companions a badger, a pair of lion cubs and a baby camel that follows her around the zoo that she owns with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh).

Once the Nazis take over, a preening Berlin zoologist (Daniel Brühl) informs her that the Warsaw zoo is to be “liquidated for the war effort” — mirroring the announcement, later on, that the Warsaw ghetto is also to be “liquidated.” German soldiers callously gun down an elephant and laugh about it; you sense they’re using the animals for both physical and psychological practice.

Caro (“Whale Rider”) largely forgoes the eardrum-shattering ballistics of a typical war movie — yes, there are bombings and shootings, but they’re the backdrop, not the focus. Her film dwells more in the aftermath of violence, as when Antonina tends to one of the people she shelters, a traumatized young rape victim (Shira Haas), by letting her care for a baby rabbit.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” doesn’t aim for the territory of epic World War II movies, and its cuddly animals and saintly heroine are perhaps too polished to accurately represent the grit and terror of the time. But overall, Caro seems to be making a pointed narrative choice: In the war movie genre, those who quietly tend to the vulnerable don’t always get their due.

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