The Zookeeper’s Wife – Film Review by P. Viale
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Angela Workman (screenplay), Diane Ackerman (book)
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Though director Niki Caro’s (Whale Rider) latest film is set in war-torn Poland during the Nazi occupation, it is obvious from the opening shots that it will have more in common with soft-focus hair shampoo commercials than with movies like “Schindler’s List” or “The Pianist”. Everything looks too pretty. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), the wife of the keeper of Warsaw’s zoo, wanders through a sunlit zoo, smiling at the visitors, a female Doctor Dolittle, embracing and talking to the animals. Her husband smiles at her. The workmen smile at everyone. There is more smiling than at a revivalist born-again reunion.
Caro’s film tells the true story of the director of Warsaw’s zoo and his wife who during the Second World War were able to save over 300 Jews by hiding them in their zoo. A book, based on Antonina’s diaries of the period, was published in 2007 to great critical acclaim. However, Caro’s film does not do it justice. This is a soft-centred, sentimental telling of the story and though there are moments of great power (the attack and rape of a young Jewish girl is particularly shocking and is very well handled), overall the film fails to convince.
The rounding up of Polish Jews and the history of the Warsaw ghetto are among the most harrowing episodes of the Holocaust but here that sense of horror does not come across. It seems hard to believe that the zookeeper, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), would be allowed such free access in and out of the ghetto to collect left-over food when people were dying of starvation on the streets and it is even more unbelievable that he would bring his eight year old son along on these expeditions. Though these events may be based on extracts from the diaries, they are portrayed here in a glossy, romanticised manner that is hard to take seriously.
As the zookeeper, Heldenbergh, is convincing and looks the part. He gives a nuanced performance both as a dedicated partisan fighting for his country and a suspicious husband who is wondering to what extent his wife is betraying him. Chastain is just too sweet throughout. She smiles and weeps and emotes continuously but fails to engage us. Daniel Brühl is their German friend, keeper of a zoo in Munich, who comes back into their lives as the local SS commander and behaves in the way we have come to expect of Nazi officers in this type of film. The young son, Ryszard, particularly as the eight year old played by Timothy Radford, is charming.
Perhaps because we have seen stories of this period told in a more realistic and affecting way in both content and style, The Zookeeper’s Wife seems a little limp. It will certainly have its audience. If you like your war sanitised and artistically shot with not too many sad endings, this is the film for you. And if you like fluffy bunny rabbits and the occasional glimpse of fat ginger cats among the ruins of a devastated Warsaw, you will definitely love this film. Otherwise, you won’t!