With so many compelling stories to tell about all the evil that Hitler’s Third Reich spewed into the world, the power of film has an ability to educate audiences on these very human stories of loss and terror – but also bravery and perseverance. We’ve seen many of these films embedded in World War II (some good and some bad), but with a strong lead, these films can usually work – especially under the right guidance. In the case of The Zookeeper’s Wife, the film is anchored by Jessica Chastain, who provides great work all the time – but the person that holds all of it together is director Niki Caro, who is no stranger to strong female characters. Having made the Oscar-nominated Whale Rider and North Country as well as being the rumored director for Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, Caro is in the top echelon of women directors with a powerful voice, making her latest venture that much more intriguing.
Based on the Diane Ackerman book, the story follows Chastain as Antonina Zabinski, a Polish woman who runs the Warsaw Zoo alongside her husband Jan. During the occupation, Antonina and Jan try to keep to themselves and keep under the radar of a Nazi Germany starting to roll out their European occupation. A combination of the Reich’s zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) and self-perseverance ends up playing them right into the Nazi’s hands until a bombing of Poland releases the majority of their animals into the streets of Warsaw and dooms those remaining in the zoo to a quick demise at the hands of German soldiers. Looking for a way to help their people with the land and space they have, Jan and Antonina start to hide hundreds of people within their crumbling zoo in an effort to fight back.
As usual, Jessica Chastain brings her best effort, establishing Antonina as a woman who exudes love and compassion for not only the animals in her care, but all of the people around her. Unfortunately, this gets brought to the surface very quickly into the film when she resuscitates a newborn elephant right after birth in a scene that drips with over dramatics and a manipulative need to get the audience rallying around Antonina immediately. Rather than let the film gradually build, it feels like Caro doesn’t have the faith that this character can do it organically and instead goes for a route of establishing her as the woman everyone wants, also bringing Heck’s jealousy of Jan having her to in an urgent fashion.
This is a minor indication of the major problems The Zookeeper’s Wife has and that is the pacing. At some times, we are hurtling through events just to set up things that will happen later in the film and others feel painfully slow and dull. I found the movie very hard to get into and aside for the truth in this brave and incredible story, I was surprised to find that it left no impression on me by the time the credits rolled. The Zookeeper’s Wife finds itself in a bland and totally forgettable purgatory of stories that deserved much more. Caro cares a lot for Antonina Zabinski but doesn’t leave a lot of room for us to believe that this isn’t a heightened version of her, which I think may be a little unfair to this genuinely heroic story. I assume the book will leave you with a better understanding of these events than this film adaptation did for me. 2.5/5