IN 1939, Antonina Zabinska and her husband Jan run Warsaw Zoo, a Disneyland clone packed with delighted visitors and adorable animals.
But, after the German occupation and rape of Poland, the couple daringly saved more than 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto from extermination by hiding them there.
And this potent “based-on-a-true-story” drama gains additional force since, in addition to focusing on its heroine, it’s also written and directed by women.
Director Niki Caro, using Angela Workman’s screen adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book, vividly contrasts the playful pre-war zoo with nazi cruelty, underlining the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the sentencing of Jews to extermination in concentration camps.
Daniel Bruhl’s nazi zoologist, appointed to “liaise’ with the zookeepers and Johan Heldenbergh as Jan, impress.
Jessica Chastain works hard and never actually embarrasses as Antonina but, as sole Hollywood import, she is rather more the star than a truly credible character.
It’s increasingly important to remind people of the horrors depicted as the passage of time dilutes the legacy of the Holocaust.
As the Norwegian Ravensbruck survivor Sylvia Salvesen’s said: “Forgive. But not forget.”
In light of that, it’s perhaps a disquieting irony that the film was shot in Prague, not Warsaw.
Letters from Baghdad (PG)
Directed by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl
Dubbed the “female” Lawrence of Arabia, the remarkable yet forgotten Gertrude Bell was a woman ahead of her time.
Writer, traveller, explorer — and also considered to be a British spy — she was the most powerful female in the British empire in her day.
She never received the historical recognition she deserved but first-time directors Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbuhl attempt to rectify that with this gripping documentary.
It recounts her extraordinary story in her own words, voiced powerfully and hauntingly by Tilda Swinton and those of her contemporaries, spoken by numerous actors, which are taken entirely from her private letters — she left over 1,600 — secret communiques and primary sources.
These are seamlessly interwoven with previously unseen archive film footage of the region at that time and thousands of poignant black-andwhite photographs taken by Bell herself.
Due to her incredible knowledge of the Middle East, the uncharted Arabian desert and its tribes, she was instrumental in helping to draw up Iraq’s borders during WWI.
Her views and the political fears she voiced for the region, its development and its people, have all since come to pass and clearly resonate today.
This impressive debut documentary feature provides a unique insight into an extraordinary woman, the history of Iraq and British colonial power.
Hopefully, it will help to award Gertrude Bell her rightful place in history.
Rules Don’t Apply (12A)
Directed by Warren Beatty
IN RULES Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty paints an intriguing portrait of legendary Hollywood producer Howard Hughes in a project that took years to bring to fruition.
Beatty’s characterisation of the eccentric billionaire is compelling and he also scores as director and screenwriter with Bo Goldman in creating a memorable portrait of 1958 Hollywood.
The film centres on aspirant actress Maria (Lily Collins) and ambitious driver Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) who works for Hughes’s RKO studios, where she comes for a screen test.
Their budding romance, tested by her Baptist convictions and Hughes’s rule that employees don’t date and his increasingly deranged codeine-addicted interference, is consistently entertaining — and even more watchable than Beatty’s recent Oscar mishap.
The romantic duo do well and the strong supporting cast includes Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris and Oliver Platt but, ultimately, it’s Beatty’s triumph.
Modestly, in the end credits, the multi-talented Beatty bills himself below a canine actor.
Directed by Denise De Novi
WHEN Julia (Rosario Dawson) becomes engaged to divorced dad David (Geoff Stults) and goes to live with him, she believes that she has found heaven.
She’s wrong, because David’s exwife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) turns out to be the kind of celluloid psychopath who’d give Norman Bates nightmares and, using her and David’s young daughter, embarks on a nightmare reign of terror against Tessa to regain her husband.
When you hear fellow reviewers laughing knowledgeably at a feature not intended as a comedy, you can be pretty sure that you’re watching either a horror film — laughter is a terrific disguise for fear — or something really unique.
Denise De Novi’s directorial debut is definitely the latter. It’s a melodramatic, TV-style thriller whose increasingly unlikely story is less credible than a politician addressing potential voters during an election.
But, in its own daffy and overacted terms, it adds up to an entertaining amalgam of fun and fury which doesn’t tax the brain cells.