UK Release Date: 21st April 2017
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Angela Workman
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg
Synopsis: The owners of a Polish zoo during the Second World War begin harbouring Jewish fugitives in order to shield them from the Nazi regime, while a German scientist uses their zoo for his own eugenics programme.
Arriving in the same week as sweet-natured British drama Their Finest in UK cinemas, Niki Caro‘s wartime drama The Zookeeper’s Wife appeared to be the more engaging prospect of the two Second World War movies in multiplexes. It looked to be a compelling story told with some great actors in the lead roles and a layer of Hollywood gloss to add some weight to the proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s that gloss that dooms the film to being a rather mediocre, sanitised take on a very important slice of world history.
Animal lover Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) run Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s, but find many of their animals killed and the zoo destroyed when the Nazis invade Poland. Hitler-sympathising biologist Dr Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) decides he wants to use the zoo for eugenics experiments, but Antonina and Jan decide that they will use the zoo as a way to provide shelter for their Jewish friends Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg) and Magda (Efrat Dor). They ultimately realise that they can do even more good and welcome dozens of Jews into their home as a way of secretly smuggling them out of Poland.
It’s a real shame that The Zookeeper’s Wife squanders its potential because, on paper, it’s a very well-made and solid take on a story that deserves to be told. Caro, despite having a reasonable grasp of her material, absolutely bathes the movie in Hollywood schmaltz and, as a result, all of the rough edges that could have helped the film are smoothed off. This is a movie in which awful atrocities are perpetrated, but they are mostly perpetrated off screen and against characters whose names we are not told. It is as if the central characters are shielded from the worst of it all – and so are the audience.
There’s a lot about The Zookeeper’s Wife that actually holds together relatively well. Jessica Chastain is a very reliable leading lady and she brings a genuinely intriguing depth to her role, despite a rather distracting European accent. She carries much of the weight of the film and is often given perhaps a little too much to do. Daniel Brühl, too, does stellar work in a role that fits him rather snugly, allowing him to tap into the villainous side that has produced some of his most memorable performances.
Caro shoots the film handsomely and there are some gripping visuals, especially in the early scenes of the initial German arrival, but these aren’t enough to rescue the film from the mediocrity it settles into once the first act is over. Despite the urgency and intensity of the protagonists’ situation, there is very little in the way of tension in the film, which constantly seems more inclined to hide the violence from the audience than to provide a real look at the horrors of the war. The true story at the centre of The Zookeeper’s Wife is inherently dramatic and important, so it’s almost impressive that the film manages to make it so dull.
There’s always an issue with how little emotional resonance the story seems to possess. It speaks volumes that the most horrifying and tough acts of violence in The Zookeeper’s Wife are those in which animals are executed. The time period depicted in this film covers one of the most unspeakable acts of violence against humanity ever perpetrated and, yet, we feel it more when it’s the animals who are being hurt. With a tighter script and a little bit of a spikier exterior, this could’ve been something special, but it feels like just another Hollywood historical flop.
Pop or Poop?
The horrors of the Holocaust always seem slightly removed from the action in The Zookeeper’s Wife, but tries very hard to lean on character. Unfortunately, the character side of the story feels rather thin and therefore isn’t enough to lift the rather subpar material.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.