#REVIEW: “THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an extraordinary tale made all the more incredible by being based on a true story. In the late 1930s, Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run the popular Warsaw Zoo in Poland. When the Nazis invade the country in September 1939, many of the animals are killed or taken away. The zoo is shut down, and the German troops begin using the grounds for farming. While the Żabińskis reluctantly assist them at first, they quickly become active in the Polish Underground State and begin providing refuge to Jews escaping the Warsaw ghetto.
Much like other Films about the Holocaust, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a harrowing and emotional journey for the characters and the audience. Director Niki Caro uses her Film’s canvas to extensively detail the Żabińskis’ heroic struggles in the face of deplorable adversity. She even creates brain searing imagery – a young couple taking photos and posing in front of the entrance to the Warsaw ghetto among them – to really emphasize these true life horrors.
Despite how remarkable this story is, The Zookeeper’s Wife can be aggravating to watch. Caro’s attention to detail is admirable, but it can only extend so far. The Instagram-worthy entrance pose notwithstanding, I felt like Caro spends more time replicating the visuals of better Holocaust-set Films instead of creating her own unique take. The lack of momentum also does her no favours, as the Film practically limps through its first two acts. Even during the moderately compelling third act, it was hard to feel any investment in a story that quickly becomes all too ordinary. The efforts of the female-led cast and crew may have been genuine when they set out to adapt Diane Ackerman’s Novel, but they take too few chances on making something truly memorable.
From the start, the passion Chastain has for Antonina is crystal-clear. She throws herself into every scene, nailing emotional and pivotal moments with the Oscar-nominated gravitas she’s known for. Her Polish accent is so fine-tuned that she is nearly unrecognizable in the role. But she often seems distracted, caught in a Film that wants to emphasize her part but has no idea how to do it. At least Chastain’s character has some depth – Heldenbergh is basically a conduit for Caro and Screenwriter Angela Workman to show the audience the horrors of war and concentration camps. He gets to be vaguely expressive in some scenes, but nothing more.
The only actor who seems to benefit from Workman’s script is Daniel Brühl, who brings a terrifying ambivalence to the villainous Lutz Heck. He plays each scene completely differently, never allowing the characters or the audience to understand his true intentions. It is a bit of a tight rope to walk, but Brühl excels greatly at it – ratcheting-up the tension all on his own. He may soon be typecast as a villain, but with this kind of brooding intensity and enigmatic demeanour, that might not be such a bad thing.
While it may feel cruel to compare The Zookeeper’s Wife to other Films about the Holocaust, it feels apt. There were good intentions in adapting this Novel for the screen, but the minimal greatness go practically wasted on a story that should feel more relevant and unique. For such an incredible true story, the Film is just all too ordinary.
Elevation Pictures release THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE on Friday, March 31, 2017.