The Holocaust is a genre of its own in cinema and with such a wide and varied swath of films already in existence it’s hard for a movie to differentiate itself. Director Niki Caro valiantly makes an effort with the sumptuous and heartwarming The Zookeeper’s Wife. Though the results never rise above basic Jessica Chastain is consistently wonderful and does a lot to elevate The Zookeeper’s Wife above its simplistic trappings, but is hobbled by a script that harbors her in ignorance.
Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) live in and run the popular Warsaw Zoo. When the Nazis invade Poland Antonina’s family are forced to work alongside Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), Hitler’s chief zoologist, in order to keep their home. As Jan becomes more aware of what is happening to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, he and Antonina decide to start harboring them and ferrying them to safety, putting their own lives at risk.
Based on Diane Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife has a worthwhile premise, especially once you factor in how many Holocaust dramas are told from the male perspective. The impetus is there to show the Holocaust through female eyes, though it’s evident Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman aren’t sure how to balance the real-world horrors of the Holocaust with a character who spends her time safely ensconced in a zoo.
As a character, Antonina is both stimulating and unremarkable. She’s introduced as a female, 1940s Doctor Doolittle, riding her bike alongside camels and resuscitating baby elephants. Nearly every other scene sees Chastain nuzzling an animal or cradling one to her chest, turning up her nurturing level to 11. At one point she’s referred to as “Eve in her garden,” one of many moments where all subtlty goes out the window. (The other involves bison mating, let’s leave it at that.) It’s enough to give you a toothache from how sweet it all is, though Chastain delivers Workman’s words so well that it’s easy to understand why she believes animals are better than people. “You look into their eyes and you can see what’s in their hearts.”
After the war takes over and the zoo goes on the backburner, Antonina blossoms as a character, but she’s still given a secondary position within the narrative. Much of the heavy-lifting is left to her husband Jan, who goes into the ghetto day after day to rescue demoralized Jewish citizens. Heldenbergh captures all the disgust and sadness of being someone desperate to help and feeling impotent. At one point he witness the rape and attack of a young girl, and the look on his face is one of horror and tragedy. Several scenes of high drama are left on his shoulders and though there’s no way to integrate Antonina into these moments, she seems to play second banana to his story. The best moments are when Heldenbergh and Chastain are allowed to act together; tender moments in bed allow them to showcase the unconditional love their characters have for each other.
A particularly heated conversation sees Jan declare Antonina as ignorant of what’s happening outside. This is the film’s high point and does much towards helping audiences understand Antonina’s limited involvement. She’s like the animals in many ways, trapped in a cage. The problem lies in the script’s inability to turn away from Jan’s more interesting narrative and show us Antonina’s struggle of being the one unable to do more. She seemingly spends her days holding bunnies and enjoying time with her son and the “guests” in her basement, but there’s no additional torment or discussion about how she feels to be on the sidelines. This ends up showing more of Antonina’s flaws than placing them in context. Her character seems contradictory; one minute she wants to save people, only to declare she just wants to save her friends and then decides to save as many as possible. Chastain is nothing short of perfection, playing a woman with the tenacity of the actress’ Miss Sloane and the sweetness of Celia Foote, but it’s frustrating that the material limits her.
Chastain’s biggest acting interludes are opposite Daniel Bruhl as the evil Lutz Heck. Bruhl is becoming the go-to Nazi and his performance is terrifying yet perfunctory. There’s little personality to Heck other than his evilness, and the film goes out of its way to make you despise him. As if being a Nazi isn’t enough, he’s also a big game hunter with little compunction for shooting animals – ironic considering his zoological background – and goes so far as to threaten to shoot a child. God forbid you found Bruhl dreamy before! There are hints of a romantic angle between Heck and Antonina, with the latter using herself as a honey pot to hide what her family is doing, but the script seems afraid of entering the murky waters. Too often the romance is hinted at – a touch of the hand or stroke of the face. The relationship is meant to turn stomachs, but it would have put Antonina on equal footing with her husband had the film not been afraid to delve into it deeper. Best keep Antonina safe with her bunnies. (A word of warning: If you’re not big on animal death, the first third of this movie will test your mettle. So. Much. Animal. Death.)
Andrij Parekh’s cinematography is lush and showcases both the beauty and gritty poverty of Warsaw. And Bina Daigeler’s costumes are fresh and airy, particularly on Chastain.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a decent, if unsatisfying, attempt to do something new with the Holocaust drama. Chastain and Heldenbergh are solid, but the script’s rough edges leave the leading lady in the background. It’s doubtful the film will be remembered come summertime.