The Zookeeper’s Wife
Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl
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The Zookeeper’s Wife has the occasional flash of brilliance that lifts it slightly above the average.
Based on a true story, via the popular 2007 book by Daine Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells of a couple’s struggle to establish a Jewish underground railroad in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. After their zoo is bombed and the remaining animals either shot or plundered for the Berlin Zoo, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) begin to hide Jewish women and children as they see them undergoing a process of increasing brutalisation by the German occupation.
There is almost a mawkish sentimentality about this film, but The Zookeeper’s Wife manages to pull itself back from the edge in unexpected moments. This could be a glimpse of the strange surreality of war, such as a wallaby fleeing through the bombed out streets of Warsaw, or a sharp pang of realisation, such as the ashen snow flakes of the burning Jewish ghetto. The film is filled with such moments, and they go a long way to breaking up what could be a very standard example of this genre.
As such The Zookeeper’s Wife walks a strange line; a gentiles’ view of the Holocaust, a civilian’s view of the war. Both are important tales to tell, and this is based on the true story of genuine heroes that saved hundreds of lives, but it seems primarily from an observer’s point of view. With an over-attention to costuming and set dressing that borders on romanticism, it feels somewhat sanitised, lessening the impact it could have had.
At times this feeling is more prevalent than others, but there are long stretches in the second act, where the film begins to drag. There is a sense that this works better on the printed page, allowing more time to steep in the characters and the atmosphere of war-time Poland, rather than that lurching sensation as the film catapults forward a year or two.
Yet there is still something here. Those previously mentioned moments of shock and strangeness, the emotional impact of seeing a Jewish child asking to be lifted onto a train for “resettlement”, the frequent close-up shots of the Nazis showing only their belt or boots (as if the wearers are dehumanised by the uniform) all add a certain flourish to the film that maintains your fascination with the tale.
Part of that appeal is Jessica Chastian (despite an idyllic character introduction that is one bird-borne flower garland away from having her crowned a Disney princess). Her performance is one that is seemingly timid, but demonstrative of the iron will beneath. Little wonder that Daniel Bruhl’s Nazi zoologist underestimates her so badly.
Despite lacking some impact, The Zookeeper’s Wife has the occasional flash of brilliance that lifts it slightly above the average. A little muddled but ultimately interesting.