In today’s contentious world, Niki Caro’s gentle, moderately earnest “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the type of emotional melodrama that seems like a welcome antidote. A Holocaust period drama that focuses on the noble courage and empathy of others, particularly in dark, troubled times, rather than the unspeakable horrors that follow, it’s a sincere plea for sympathy, a hopeful call to arms for social justice. And that’s what makes its middling, mostly unremarkable execution heartbreaking. Despite dynamic performances all around, most especially from its lead actress, Jessica Chastain, and its timely relevance, Caro’s tragically less-than-average would-be awards contender is a disappointingly bland and forgettable effort that isn’t nearly as stunning or rousing as it rightfully should be.
Based on the book by Diane Ackerman, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” follows the true story of Antonia Żabińska (Chastain), the titular wife, and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh), the zookeeper in question, the owners of the Warsaw Zoo, one of the largest in late 1930s Europe. Along with their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), the Żabińskis give nothing but devotion and dear affection to their animals, bonding with them as if they’re practically close relatives, but their undying love isn’t enough to prevail against the unfailing hate within the rise of the Nazi Party in Poland. With bombings, mass genocide and nationwide panic affecting the preservation of their creatures, not to mention the humans who visit and care for them, Antonia believes that she has a friend in Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a fellow zoologist promising to take the utmost care of these animals with the onset of war. But when Dr. Heck is revealed to be a cold-blooded Nazi, the Żabińskis find their trust in the wrong hands.
While the Żabińskis are not Jewish themselves, they cannot stand to watch their fellow citizens, notably their friends Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his wife Magda (Efrat Dor), fall victim to such widespread evil. With their zoo closed indefinitely, and a majority of their animals shipped away or killed, they offer to defiantly fight against the Nazi party by hiding and hosting several local Jews away from the Nazis’ clutches. Their efforts are made more difficult by Heck’s imposing, menacing presence, as the Żabińskis’ home soon becomes the breeding ground for his diabolical, God-playing plans to recreate extinct animals for his own personal, devilish satisfaction.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” wants to show the terrors of early ’40s Poland without showcasing its true ugliness. The result is well-meaning and sometimes gratifying, but ultimately not nearly as effective as it should be. Locked to its defanged PG-13 rating, there’s no blood and very little on-screen violence, with gruesome depictions of torture, human/animal deaths and more left hidden and unseen. In its presentation, it’s meant to be tastefully sanitized, one assumes, if ultimately still present, but due to its choppy editing, such sequences feel censored or clipped away. While it makes the movie more approachable, it also takes away from the clear, very present brutality of the situation. Antonia and her family are, for the most part, meant to be away from the atrocities of this horrific black mark in our world’s history, living in seclusion while only given momentary glimpses into the heinous crimes committed by the country and its neighbors. Yet we, the audience, are also only momentarily given a true understanding of the dangers of this time.
While, yes, the history books can give us a proper picture of what evils were abound, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” never gives us, the audience, a true understanding of the clear and present danger for these real-life figures, nor does Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman provide a proper indication as to how much risk and jeopardy the Żabińskis put themselves in for trying to save hundreds upon hundreds of their ostracized fellow civilians. It’s a murky, muddled look at the calamity of fascism — which, therefore, makes the adversity and defying struggles of our lead protagonists not nearly as suspenseful, riveting or haunting.
Beyond its hurried pacing and general glossiness, however, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” isn’t necessarily bad. The stunning production designs, the lush cinematography, the involving score, the dynamite acting — they all serve Caro’s newest film well, and even when they can’t make it as strong and compelling as this film ultimately could’ve been, they bring the emotional gravitas that should be found in every frame of this dramatized account. Yet, the film’s always-apparent mediocrity continually makes it frustrating.
For what it’s worth, Chastain is as good as ever, but it’s a shame that such a gripping, tender, and vulnerable performance is lost in a period drama as flat as this one. At a point in our nation, when stories like this can hold such valuable weight, it’s unfortunate for “The Zookeeper’s Wife” to fall short. [C]