Amazingly enough, the most interesting thing about “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is Jessica Chastain’s horrible Polish accent. This sort of sums up the problems with Niki Caro’s biopic: it fails to make a moving Holocaust story feel true to the period or place, apparently because of over-sensitivity to general American audiences who, on the whole, don’t like things that are “foreign-seeming” or “true to Holocaust” at their multiplexes.
Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Żabiński, a fervent animal lover who cares for the residents of the Warsaw Zoo (Warsaw, the capital of Poland) alongside her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and their son. When the zoo is bombed during the Nazi invasion of Poland, they decide to help save Jews from the infamous Warsaw ghetto by sheltering them in the now-empty cages until they can be transported to safety. Keeping a close eye on them is Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a German zoologist who steals their animals, has a crush on Antonina and somehow holds enough power as a zoologist to make or break their efforts if he finds out.
Important notes: 1) All these people were real (as were Heck’s wacky breeding experiments) and the Żabińskis did save many lives. 2) “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. The book is itself based on Antonina’s diaries.
So knowing these things, how is this movie so lame? It’s based on a moving true story! The book was written by a poet naturalist, of all people! I went in expecting a luke warm but decently effective “everything was okay in the end!” Holocaust movie, and somehow this — which is, I repeat, about the Holocaust — couldn’t even move me to gasp. The closest I came to shedding a tear was when some animals died! The animals are, in fact, the highlights of this film, and all the good memories I have from my screening involve watching lions nap or zebras chew on things.
Of course, Chastain gives a lovely performance despite the accent, and Heldenbergh and Brühl hold their own on the sides, but it’s not like they have a lot to work with. Holy canoli, I don’t know what Caro and writer Angela Workman were doing.
After the bombing ends, there’s exactly zero tension in this movie. Every once in awhile someone will look askance at Antonina or Jan, and just as quickly, they’ll either turn out to be good guys or simply disappear from the narrative. It takes basically the whole movie for Heck to even suspect something is wrong! Workman and Caro would apparently rather waste time on Jan’s anger about Heck flirting with Antonina than give us anything resembling drama because who cares about that whole World War II thing, right?
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” isn’t worth your time or money. Jessica Chastain has plenty of good movies floating around the internet, watch one of those instead.