In the opening sequences, we are introduced to Antonina (Chastain), she enjoys her morning bike rides, greeting the lions, tigers, and monkeys, surrounded by gorgeous trees in their family Warsaw zoo. It is the spring of 1939, where her families tranquil lives seem like a paradise, where Antonina displays her tenderness to the zoo's new baby elephant, but these peaceful times fade fast. The German forces drop bombs from the sky, liquidate the animals (in a gruesome sequence of events), use the zoo as an armory, and force the Jewish people into the ghettos. The Zabinski family decided to take on as many Jewish people as they could, hiding them in plain sight, using underground tunnels for people to escape, away from the watchful eye of Nazi general Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl).
The screenplay, adapted from Diane Ackerman's book, by Angela Workman often fails to find the dramatic center of this story. Instead, it seems to tell it in a standard, Schindler's List type fashion. It's established that the Zabinski's will take in people, with Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) conflicted to put his wife and child at risk, as Heck constantly lusts after his wife. The metaphoric images of humans being kept behind bars, while the barbaric nazi's torture the Jewish people, at least strikes an emotional chord. What saves the often disjointed script however, is another strong performance from Chastain. Her tender voice, using a noticeably consistent Polish accent, helps her reveal her characters emotions, as she shakes with fear from the constant threat that surrounds her family.
A movie like The Zookeeper's Wife has the best intentions at it's heart. The direction form Niki Caro is superb on the surface, capturing the changing seasons in Poland, as it becomes decimated by the destruction of war. Any film critic is aware of the difficulties it entails for a director to film with children and animals, and The Zookeeper's Wife does both, so I can respect the work done here. In one of the films best scenes, Antonina holds close an adorable baby rabbit and comforts a young girl that is a victim of being raped by nazi soldiers. It's a heart wrenching monologue, but it is also a shame that the rest of the film can't live up to this dramatic moments weight. Caro's film fails the most when the narrative injects plot points that feel wedged into the story, such as Jan's fight in the resistance and Antonina's second pregnancy. I couldn't help but think, a second treatment to this script, and I could have loved this film.
Ultimately, The Zookeeper's Wife is admirable. It tells a courageous story, worthy of being told on the big screen, but worthy of a better telling. It's too bad this wasn't great, because I loved Jessica Chastain's performance and learning about the Zabinski families sacrifices is a history that needs to be told. They sheltered people that were preyed on by monsters. We can't erase their courage, be thankful for the people they saved, and mourn the lives that were lost. When we hear stories like this, seeing the harsh reality of how humans can treat others this way, it's hard to not have more love for the animals.
2 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady
MOVIE: THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE
STARRING: JESSICA CHASTAIN; DANIEL BRUHL; JOHAN HELDENBERGH
DIRECTED BY: NIKI CARO
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 2 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The Zookeeper's Wife, has a few reasons to be applauded, especially for telling the unfairly untold story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, two people who saved multiple Jewish lives, hiding as many as 300 people in their zoo during Nazi occupied Poland. What I found significantly interesting though, was that this was the first film about WWII that portrayed how animals suffered during this time of war. It makes for an interesting parallell, as the bars of the cages that once kept the animals safe, only to eventually become the saving grace for the Jewish lives of those being persecuted. Director Niki Caro delivers an admirable, although quite clunky film, with another superb performance from Jessica Chastain.