Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain came out of nowhere. At least, that’s what it seemed like in 2011. The film-release stars aligned and no fewer than six films open that year featuring this fresh new face who, as anyone who understands how these things work, knows had actually been working for years. Most notably, that year she was featured in Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Tree of Life, and The Help (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). That’s one way to launch a career.

From there, like a sprinter at the starting line when the gun goes off, she hit the ground running. After several years and more success in big-budget brainteasers (Interstellar) and indie darlings (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), it’s her most recent releases that see her top-lining the marquee. The underrated Miss Sloane was good, but not good enough to break through the awards hustle around its December release at the end of last year.

Now, The Zookeeper’s Wife gets a late-March release that all but removes it from any awards conversation for 2018 (understandably so, honestly). But no matter. Chastain is talented enough that, though it won’t be for Zookeeper, it’s just a matter of time before she gets the recognition she deserves.

In the end, it’s mostly thanks to Chastain’s unwavering conviction in the title role that The Zookeeper’s Wife, the film adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book (which itself is based on a true story), avoids falling entirely into caricature territory. The glossy, polished Holocaust drama is at times moving (and, as most Holocaust films are, difficult to watch), but it’s a far cry from the life-changing impact of films like Schindler’s List, Son of Saul and Life is Beautiful.

Jan and Antonina Zabinski live at their zoo in Warsaw with their young son Ryszard; it’s 1939 and the trouble in Germany is quickly approaching. But Jan and Antonina go about their days, opening each morning for an enthusiastic public, hosting cocktail parties in the evenings and, her animal-whisperer talents on full display, intervening to save a newborn elephant’s life.

Sure enough, Nazi planes soon bomb the zoo, wild animals first terrified then freed when their cages and enclosures are destroyed. Not far from that chaos, we see the ghastly launch of the Warsaw ghetto. Soon, the Zabinskis face the closure of their zoo for the war effort, that message delivered by Hitler’s zoologist from Berlin, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, who’s so good at being a Nazi it’s scary).

In one of the film’s more questionable plot leaps, the Zabinskis realize – seemingly out of nowhere – that they have the means and access to help the persecuted. A tunnel built to transport animals could just as easily funnel Jews into their basement and back out again to freedom, the zoo as a secret way station.

So sets in motion the Zabinskis’ heroics. Truly. They saved over three hundred people, risking their own lives in the process.

Unfortunately, as The Zookeeper’s Wife tries to cram an entire war into just over two hours’ running time, their laudable effort isn’t given the space it deserves to truly resonate. Having convinced Heck to let them turn their zoo into a pig farm to feed soldiers, they propose to sustain the animals on the ghetto’s scraps. So we ride with Jan as he smuggles people out, hidden in the garbage. We sit with Antonina as she comforts a young rape victim, explaining to her (and us) her love of animals. Jan’s work with the resistance increases, and Antonina navigates a relationship with Heck in order to keep his suspicions at bay.

It’s impossible to make a film set during the Holocaust that isn’t a gut punch; the atrocities depicted never fail to turn one’s stomach (personally, I had to look away as Jan finds himself helping children onto a train bound for…well, we all know where they’re bound for). But even this historical gravity can’t save the film from a winding, overcomplicated plot and a few truly odd moments that, given the context, are as jarring as they are tone-deaf.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story worth telling. In a perfect world, everyone who put their lives on the line to save others during this dark chapter of our collective history would have their stories told to the masses. The film treatment of this particular family’s efforts, however, lacks the focus to do the Zabinskis and their valiant efforts justice.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE – dir Niki Caro. Written by Angela Workman. Starring Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh. Opens in Chicago Friday, March 31. Official Site

Passes the Bechdel Test: Yes
Passes the DuVernay Test: No