For the Żabińskis who run the Warsaw Zoo, life is idyllic in summer 1939. Sure, Poland has aggressive next-door neighbors in Germany and the Soviet Union, but it has yet to become a Polish problem. Antonina (Jessica Chastain) is more worried about saving the lives of baby elephants and indulging in her innocent sort-of crush on Berlin zookeeper Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, who always gets stuck playing this guy). Then come the Nazis, who were bad enough already but begin bombing zoos. Herr Heck even becomes Hitler’s chief zoologist, letting Brühl get even more creepily handsy.
As the titular heroine, Chastain is strong and beautiful, even if her accent is a bit of an obvious put-on. As much of the film as is spent on Johan Heldenbergh’s zookeeper, Jan, the title could have been The Zookeepers. The tall Belgian provides a grounded presence alongside Chastain’s shimmering Hollywood starlight; their chemistry is understated yet potent. This classy tale of World War II survival may be familiar, but it’s another welcome reminder of humanity’s resilience in the face of its grossest inhumanity.