‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Review: They Bought a Zoo Too

'The Zookeeper's Wife'

Movie Rating:

2.5

Great story. Mediocre movie. It’s depressingly common. ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is the latest example of the phenomenon, but it will be far from the last.

Director Niki Caro (‘Whale Rider’, ‘McFarland, USA’) stumbled onto a bit of history that hadn’t been told on film yet but was practically designed for prestige movie treatment. Unfortunately, Caro’s commitment to telling the tale with handsome respect led to something far duller than the material deserves. Oscars won’t follow.

The story is about Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heidenbergh), who owned the Warsaw Zoo in the 1940s. They were respected in their community and their business was loved, but like so many in Poland in those days, the German invasion changed everything. The Nazis (in this cased embodied by Daniel Brühl, using the disarmingly charming Nazi routine that he played so well in ‘Inglourious Basterds’) quickly executed all of their animals for food and used their facilities for an armory and bizarre research. The Zabinskis would house, feed and save 300 Jewish “guests” in the underground tunnels and basement of their zoo over the course of the war. It was a considerable risk given the significant Nazi presence in their zoo, but the hide-in-plain-sight tactic worked and only two of the souls who passed through their zoo didn’t survive the war.

Essentially, this movie is ‘We Bought a Zoo’ meets ‘Schindler’s List’ in every possible way. The concepts overlap enough for a cynical pitch. The story is beautiful and the cast commit to it fully. Despite a dodgy accent, Chastain is as moving and talented a performer as always, nimbly carrying the film with ease. Daniel Brühl is both disconcertingly nice and coldly cruel in equal measure in a fascinating villainous performance that isn’t merely benign evil. The opening passages of the movie are quite powerful, with an abrupt shift from following Antonia around through her daily zoo tasks to the world changing around her once bombs start falling. Then things go downhill.

For the sake of condensing complicated history to a simple moral story, Angela Workman’s script devolves into the most obvious paint-by-numbers storytelling. Beyond Chastain and Brühl, none of the characters have any depth. They’re merely plot devices used to advance the narrative. This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the many people whom the Zabinskas saved. They should be warm humans who make us feel deeply for their plight, but instead come across as a series of stereotypes and thin characterizations treated almost like props. The symbolism that Caro employs is irritatingly obvious (“a human zoo’) and the movie frequently manipulates heart strings with grating force, even though the story is strong enough to cover all the themes and emotions without the heavy-handed melodrama.

That said, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is a film that means well. It’s made by people who are passionate about the material and is executed with handsome visuals and sincere emotion. However, it’s all just a little too safe, banal and obvious in execution. The source material and lead performances carry the movie above a limp script and dull direction that feel only slightly above TV movie level. It’s a shame, because this is a moving story that deserves better. ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ could have been worse, even if what was made is so indistinct and painfully polite as to fade from memory almost instantly after the credits roll.

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