The Zookeeper's Wife
Based on the best-selling book by Diane Ackerman, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles the efforts of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown) to save the lives of Warsaw Jews by sheltering them in their menagerie, right under the Nazis’ noses.
Another piece of the seemingly endless Holocaust puzzle, the animal-centric location helps set the film apart from numerous similar fact-based stories and it’s a feast for the eyes to see so many creatures, especially when the facility is at its pre-WWII peak.
From elephants and jungle cats to the beloved pet skunk of the Zabinski’s son Ryszard (played at different ages by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku), the filmmakers do an admirable job of utilizing the wildlife. But once the Germans invade and commandeer the property, killing many of its inhabitants in the process, the film loses its distinctive edge and, further hampered by Caro’s flat direction, becomes yet another rote Jews-in-hiding tale.
Contributing to the sense of déjà vu is Daniel Brühl again playing a smarmy intelligent Nazi who thinks all attractive women are reserved for him, no questions asked. His take on Berlin Zoo owner Lutz Heck may be missing the intriguing complications of the celebrity factor surrounding his Inglourious Basterds’ war hero turned movie star Fredrick Zoller, but the two characters have much in common attitude-wise, making Lutz’s actions all the more predictable.
As the Zabinskis convert the zoo to a pig farm as a dual means of staying in the Nazis’ good graces and devising a route for sneaking Jews out of the ghetto, about the only twist Angela Workman’s script offers is Lutz’s goal of breeding aurochs, wild cattle that have been extinct for 300 years.
It’s the kind of fascinating Nazi detail that conveys the Third Reich’s egomania as well as the breadth of their confident imagination, and other than the film's early animal factor, three primary performances and Caro’s terrifying yet not gratuitous depiction of violence, it’s the only thing The Zookeeper’s Wife has going for it.
Whether humans or beasts are the target of Nazi bullets, the gunshots come loud and direct yet entry points and blood sprays are avoided and red bodily fluid is only lightly depicted in the immediate aftermath – all tasteful choices that maintain the film’s PG-13 rating without cheapening the subject matter.
However, even that commendable stylistic approach grows pat in a plodding second hour that goes exactly where one expects, showing just how far Caro’s skills have dulled since her extraordinary 2002 breakout Whale Rider.
Grade: C. Rated PG-13. Playing at Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Focus Features)