The Zookeeper’s Wife
Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true life tale of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, the former keepers of the Warsaw Zoo who were forced to relocate once Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
The premise of this film intrigued me. I can’t think of many films where the effects of War on animals are explored to any great degree so approaching it from that angle could have been somewhat unique. Unfortunately the bulk of the film focuses on something else and the animals are left as a side attraction.
This film is at its best in the earlier scenes where we see Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) doing her rounds of the Warsaw Zoo and spending time with the various animals. She clearly has a great rapport with them, has the necessary skills and training and cares a great deal for all of the animals she tends to. A standout scene involves a baby Elephant that has stopped breathing.
Jessica Chastain is great right from the beginning. She radiates compassion, intelligence and confidence with ease while having a degree of vulnerability throughout. Her performance suggests a fully formed person and the character is written in such a way that this is easy to believe.
It’s a shame that such an interesting character is wasted on the by the numbers story that happens once the Nazis invade Poland. The film completely changes into a story about Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) hiding Jews in a basement. Of course this likely echoes the true life events but I wonder if there was a story in Antonina caring for her animals in an unfamiliar Zoo. There are elements of that throughout but it is far from the focus.
Another issue the film has is that it is largely bereft of tension and suspense. Beyond the afore mentioned baby Elephant scene nothing else feels particularly memorable. It tells the story in a really clinical way that gets the point across without any of the urgency that you might associate with the threat of being discovered and punished accordingly.
Daniel Brühl delivers a really compelling performance in this film. The whole idea behind this character is that he is conflicted between his loyalty to the Nazis and his growing feelings for Antonina. A romance builds between them throughout the story and it comes across as really genuine thanks to the efforts of the actors involved. When Brühl’s Lutz Heck is forced to be as brutal as he is expected to he does so reluctantly and there’s definitely layers to his character. His love for animals makes him endearing but the brutality he exhibits ends up making him less than sympathetic. It’s complex and Brühl tows the line very well.
In general I think this film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It meanders from plot point to plot point without being consistent in the message it tries to get across. The fact that it’s about a Zookeeper during the Second World War is nearly irrelevant which is a shame as there was definitely potential in that idea.
A missed opportunity to tell a somewhat unique story that becomes fairly by the numbers and bereft of any real tension. The cast all do a really good job and there are some standout moments but there’s a lingering sense that the film doesn’t quite know what to be and the whole experience really suffers as a result.
- strong performances
- some standout moments
- wasted potential
- a meandering experience unsure of what it wants to be
- a lack of tension or suspense