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Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

March 31, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Sometimes the hardest movies to review are not the ones that are really good or really bad, but the ones that fall into the middle ground of being just okay.  Such is the case with The Zookeeper’s Wife.  Pretty much everything about the film is fine enough in a perfunctory sort of way, but it lacks the qualifications to make it work as much of anything beyond a palatable but somewhat bland historical drama, and that’s a damn shame.

The film recounts the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who were the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo.  They used their facilities to save hundreds of Jewish people when the Nazis invaded Poland during World War II, having to hide their actions from Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), an increasingly suspicious German official who has essentially taken over their grounds.

This is a story that deserves to be told, rich with human interest, complex characters and outcomes that range from tragic to inspiring.  But The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t fully succeed at telling it.  The film never really heightens its drama beyond a certain point, and the story covers so much ground that it feels like the screenplay is missing some key elements.  The emotional character reunions, cruel fates, and moments of both human and animal violence that are mostly staged just off-screen can be effective on their own, but they don’t really add up to a complete whole.  The entire film ends up feeling like it may have been better suited to being a mini-series.

Jessica Chastain is a performer who naturally exudes empathy, so she is a solid fit for this type of role and she is good here, having also served as a producer.  Johan Heldenbergh does fine supporting work alongside her, and Daniel Brühl effectively nails the balance between slick and menacing.  But their performances aren’t really allowed to breathe, because the film shares the beats of its true story in such a straight forward manner, that a lot of the character nuances feel lost in translation.

The screenplay by Angela Workman has been adapted from a bestselling book, that was in turn based on a true story, so all the elements are here for something special.  But The Zookeeper’s Wife consistently falls short of its potential.  Director Niki Caro mounts a fine looking production, but she also handles the material in the most safe and least offensive ways possible.  While it’s all staged in a respectful and well-meaning manner, the film can feel like it is trying to gloss over some of the horrors of the Holocaust in favour of crafting more of a feel good tale.

This is an example of an engaging true story that deserves to be told, but has been rendered pretty much listless onscreen.  Although the film does deliver some affecting moments, and the performances are all solid, The Zookeeper’s Wife is ultimately a film that is adequately made and far from terrible, but doesn’t really inspire any sort of praise beyond that.  It’s fine, but should have been better than that.

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