The Zookeeper’s WifeCultureCinemaMovie reviews
There’ll never be a shortage of films about the holocaust, as the sheer scale of such an event has inevitably resulted in personal accounts of every shape and size, containing as many stories of human bravery as shameful depravity. The Zookeeper’s Wife is the tale of a couple who owned a zoo in Warsaw, who helped over 300 Jews escape the ghetto while under threat of Nazi persecution. It’s a bland, sometimes painfully Hollywood treatment of an extraordinary story, though one that still has enough effective moments to see it through to the finish.
Jessica Chastain brings her movie star credentials to the role of Antonina Zabinski, a paragon of saintly virtue who, along with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and employee Jerzyk (Michael McElhatton), provides life and laughter to the people of Warsaw with a finely curated collection of cute animals. She cycles alongside a camel while giggling helplessly; this helps us know that she’s fun to be around. She stumbles with a tray of drinks at a party; this helps us know she’s clumsy, a bit like you and me. And she even single-handedly rescues a baby elephant – not only from a defective childbirth, but from Daniel Brühl, whose pencil moustache guarantees that he’ll become a villain in the second act.
Of course, tragedy strikes when Antonina’s habit of nuzzling lion cubs is rudely interrupted by World War II. There is a genuinely thrilling sequence here, as an allied bombing raid is depicted through bombastic sound design and disorientating camera movements – like the opening raid of Saving Private Ryan, only with more zebras. Antonina and her family fail to escape the country, so must rebuild their zoo while under the oppressive eye of Nazi rule.
Chastain is certainly a striking presence, not least because of her accent, which starts in Czechoslovakia and does a tour of at least five Balkan states. But she is a genuine star presence, a softer Deborah Kerr who grapples gamely with some deeply trite dialogue, including a monologue where bunnies are compared favourably to humans. The film succeeds best either when it deals in pure cinematic suspense – smuggling Jews past Nazis guards will never not be exciting – or when it glances at grey areas. One can imagine a much more interesting story spun from the surreal image of a tourist having her photo taken in front of the ghetto, or the strangely romantic undertones of the relationship between Brühl and Chastain – themselves a pleasant reminder of Paul Verhoven’s provocative Black Book.
As it stands, The Zookeeper’s Wife is just about watchable enough to work, though nowhere near good enough to really recommend.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is released nationwide on 21st April 2017.
Watch the trailer for The Zookeeper’s Wife here: