This movie opens on an idyllic note. The lovely Jessica Chastain, wearing a flowery sundress, is bicycling through a small but well-kept and well-stocked zoo, her hair billowing in the breeze. Elephants gambol, monkeys frolic and a baby camel gallops happily after her. But this is WarsawPoland in the summer of 1939 and things get worse, much worse. Chastain portrays the “zookeeper’s wife” and the movie of that title, based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 non-fiction book, tells the remarkable true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinska, who were running the zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland.
The Zabinaskas lived in relative security during the carnage of the Nazi occupation, though their zoo was robbed of many of its animals by the invaders. Nonetheless, without a single thought of heroism or courage, the couple put themselves at great risk by hiding nearly three-hundred Polish Jews in the zoo and spiriting them to safety. Traveling to the Warsaw ghetto to collect scraps for the pig farm now on the zoo grounds, Jan Zabinska (Belgiam actor Johan Heldenberg) returns with refugees, some of whom stay for the duration of the war, while others move on to varying safe houses. All this under the nose of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruehl), the local Nazi commander and zoologist who develops a sexual attraction to Antonina.
In trying to cram seven years’ worth of events (1939-1946) into two hours, the movie is seldom given an opportunity to pause and properly develop the characters. As directed by Niki Caro, the action skips through the years of the war, touching down every so often for a bit of drama. Occasional lurches forward in time destroy continuity (in one scene, Antonina is suddenly about to give birth while in the previous scene she wasn’t even pregnant) and a few of the characters’ actions (such as Antonina’s visit to a Nazi official’s office) don’t make sense. Some of the chosen scenes do have impact - there’s a traumatized teenage girl Ursula (Shira Haas) still in shock from being raped by German soldiers, nursed back to sanity by the kindly Antonina, who gives her a pet rabbit. There’s a suspenseful scene in which the “guests” in the basement are almost caught. There’s an older man who consistently refuses Jan’s offers to rescue him, because he needs to look after the ghetto’s children.
Jessica Chastain’s performance is rich with lovely nuances. Belgian actor Heldenbergh brings an earthy decency to his role as Jan but is very low-key and he and Chastain have little chemistry. Bruhl does a lot to make the morally-bankrupt Lutz as much a victim of war as well as a cruel Nazi cliché, but his three-dimensional character arc is never fully explored. In the same vein, Chastain’s most revealing emotional scene has nothing to do with the war at all but occurs when she hurries away from a fancy reception and assists in the birth of an elephant. Apparently the mother elephant needs help, while the father elephant is hovering and getting aggressive. But Antonina calms the father and assists the mother. The acting is consistently good but, in the end, it’s the animals that conquer the emotions and provide much of the interest.
The Holocaust, Nazis, endangered animals – this should generate some real suspense, but the outcome always feels secure even at its most threatening. The horrors play out in the background, but Caro never has enough time (or chooses not) to really flesh out the people. Antonina and Jan Żabińska deserve remembrance and Caro’s realization of their story mostly does the job well. So why does the film feel so airless and predictable? Perhaps it’s that their noble work is similar to other accounts that have been faithfully rendered by Hollywood over the decades. For example, critics and viewers alike will compare this film with the superior Schindler’s List and the earlier Sophie’s Choice since they covered similar real events. Although Zookeeper’s Wife is a well made movie, it is a much more sanitized approach and a little too prettily shot for the horrific subject matter. It doesn’t burn through the conscience and haunt you forever like Schindler’s List. But in spite of its laid-back reluctance to shock and horrify, this film is often moving and easily recommended. More on IMDB
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