I know what you’re thinking. A movie where Jessica Chastain snuggles adorable animals and manages a zoo. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a surefire feel-good critter drama – OH MY GOD, A SAVING PRIVATE RYAN SCENE RECREATED WITH ANIMALS. Bring me back to Chastain nuzzling a lion cub, please. It couldn’t possibly get – oh, nope. OK. Cue Holocaust depression brought on by Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, and a heavy German presence in WWII Poland. Granted, those of you who’ve read Diane Ackerman’s bestselling novel already know the story of Antonina Zabinski and her family’s Jewish refugee smuggling. Don’t expect director Niki Caro to take it easy on her audience. The Warsaw Zoo initiative helped save almost 3,000 lives from extermination, but not without sacrifice. This is how.
Jessica Chastain plays the titular zookeeper’s wife, Antonia. Before Germany’s invasion, she and husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) run a wonderland of nature that attracts local visitors each day. Mammals scamper about, elephants trumpet their horns and children watch monkeys swing. Then, come 1939, a bombing run lays waste to most of the Warsaw Zoo. Nazi soldiers assume control over the large plot of land, establishing an outpost. The Zabinskis have no choice but to ignore their unwelcome guests, as Berlin zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) makes his presence known by fawning over Antonia. This distracts from bigger dangers at stake, while Jan orchestrates safe-passage for Jews he smuggles under Axis noses. Can the Zabinskis save their friends while also saving themselves? Or will Heck uncover a basement full of Jewish runners.
It’s no surprise that Chastain steals every scene as Polish-accented Antonina Zabinski. Any recommendation to watch The Zookeeper’s Wife will be defined by her animal-whispering instincts. When interacting with baby bunnies or marsupials, there’s a bubbly tenderness that nurtures with any mother’s calm. When turning fear into seduction while rigidly enduring Brühl’s heavy-petting advances, Chastain chokes back tears of helplessness with stoic courage. Facing either adversity or the faintest glimmer of hope, Chastain avoids Hallmark sentiments when honoring a true-to-life war hero through passionate pleadings. Humanity, compassion and fearless pride – the strong, unwavering character Chastain was born to play.
That said, Caro has trouble keeping quality from escaping her iron cage. Blemishes make it hard to fully invest, be it an obvious ADR dub where screams are heard despite Timothy Radford’s closed mouth or underwhelming fake animals. As bombs drop on Warsaw Zoo, rumbling explosions prove the spectacle appeal Caro is able to convey. Yet once the dust has settled and tigers roam free, it’s unpolished details that mute any glean. The Zookeeper’s Wife fails to submerge itself in Hitler’s radical domination, as scenes skim through altercations that could spell trouble for Jan’s undercover missions – of course, they never do.
Angela Workman’s lean script undersells the danger of Antonia and Jan’s actions, leaving close calls up to less than chance. Brühl is most certainly not in Inglorious Bastards form, nor are his super-trusting Nazi associates. Jewish children doodle on basement walls (leaving evidence), Jan threatens a guard (who lets him pass) and no one follows up on suspected foul play. Jan is shown barely covering smuggled children with “food shavings” for pig stock, but when guards inspect his cargo, bins are filled to the brim with gross table scraps. Everything falls into Jan and Antonia’s lap, failing to match Chastain’s intensity with an equally harrowing rebellion. True story or not, Caro’s biggest hindrance is managing tone where death isn’t a spoon-fed emotional instigator.
That’s not to say atrocities are ignored. Warsaw Zoo receives a militant makeover as cages turn to twisted metal gravestones. A soul-shaking glimpse into underage rape bashes your heart in, while paralyzed Polish civilians look on with disgust. Johan Heldenbergh’s performance is a direct response to wartime unrest, while Brühl’s boot-stomping evilness is that of Nazi redundancy (and Brühl typecasting). Caro’s unable to balance historic gravity with a spotlight on Chastain’s warm glow, as details go unnoticed because of the lead actress’ masterclass European transformation. Stories about such suffering should be clear-cut tear fodder, yet The Zookeeper’s Wife left my eyes dry as deserts. And I bawled openly during Pete’s Dragon (a movie about an ‘effing dragon friend).
Jessica Chastain is one of the leading talents in her field, and
Just Let Jessica Chastain Keep Holding Animals: The Movie The Zookeeper’s Wife proves nothing less. Whether she’s racing a young camel while riding her bicycle or comforting a sexually assaulted teen, her presence sings a cinematic lullaby worth soothing comfort. Antonina Zabinski receives the iconic on-screen placement she deserves, yet that doesn’t alone make for resilient storytelling perfection. Niki Caro both embraces and ignores the Holocaust reality that plagued Warsaw’s most idyllic locale, unable to strike a prime contrast between innocent animal metaphors and one of the single saddest human tragedies Earth ever felt. Overall, this is a lacking production composure that more involved audiences will demand more of, despite easy emotional ploys that overtake with the basest drama familiarity – skunk hugs and all.
The Zookeeper's Wife undersells a story of Warsaw torment in favor Chastain's - albeit more than formidable - performance.