The Zookeeper's Wife
Aida Vucic | 05/05/2017
Adapted from Diane Ackerman's book, The Zookeeper's Wife recounts the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband Jan, who sheltered over 300 Jews in their Warsaw Zoo during World War II. Their heroic story is recreated in a stylistic, beautification of one of history’s greatest human atrocities. This glamorisation is further exemplified by the casting choice, with the undeniably gorgeous Jessica Chastain, whose performance is as breathtaking as the actress herself.
Opening with a fairytale-like vision of Zoo life, a fleeting, picturesque view of human-animal interaction is brought crashing down into reality as the Germans invade; bombing the Zoo, killing many of the animals and leaving others scurrying in the city streets, only to be killed by the Nazis. With the Zoo’s future unknown the Zabinska’s accept chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck’s (Daniel Bruhl) assistance and transport the remaining prized animals to Germany until the war is over. In an effort to avoid having to close their Zoo entirely, the pair propose using the Zoo as a pig farm to provide meat for the German soldiers. This is a guise, as Jews are transported from the ‘ghetto’, hidden among the garbage which is to be used to feed the pigs, to the Zoo, where Antonina leads them to a basement where they await their future. Their once beloved Zoo, turning into a human Zoo.
While the pair are both equally heroic, the story is firmly that of Antonina’s. Her strength in the absence of her husband, her generosity towards those to whom she provides refuge and her use of her allure to befriend Lutz and exploit their relationship to ensure complete secrecy. Expectedly, this relationship creates a rift between Antonina and Jan, as jealousy brews and Jan joins the Polish Resistance fighters – distancing himself further from his wife and their small family, as well as their Zoo.
While Niki Caro is not new to the directing world, this film seems somewhat amateurish.The story structure lacks the complexity and darkness needed to propel the film from safe, on screen territory. There’s no horror depicted that hasn't been done so much better in other films. The Zookeeper’s Wife is strongest early in the piece, when it brings the majesty of the zoo to life, and also gives a unique insight into the experience of animals during one of World War II’s bombings. When it gets bogged down in a poor imitation of better war films, it struggles.
Some of the acting talent is also distracting, with Antonina’s son in particular providing a wooden, stilted performance. Any line he delivers takes you out of story immersion. However, Daniel Bruhl gives a wonderfully menace-filled performance that brings the right level of creepy to his character. The director should be applauded for not redeeming him as a character; he is a despicable human, and this is carried throughout the film.
At the end of the day, the movie is Jessica Chastain’s. She pulls the film through any rough patches of story with the strength of her performance; whether it’s her innocent wallflower early in the piece, her frantic running during the explosive set pieces, or the single tear that falls so elegantly down her cheek as she watches some of the people she has helped, Chastain proves once again that she is at the very peak of acting talent in Hollywood today.
There’s has been an influx in the cinematic recreation of “untold” true stories, from Hidden Figures to Patriots Day. The Zookeeper's Wife is the latest in this exponential increase, and like its precursors it is a middling film. It’s a shame, given that these stories are based on extraordinary individuals, in extraordinary circumstances, that the films about them are not as revelatory.
Another true story that, although compelling, fails to hit the heights it could. With such an amazing performance from its lead, it is disappointing that the storytelling as a whole couldn’t match up.