Based on Diane Ackerman’s novel, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the amazing true story of a Polish family fighting for their lives after their home country has been invaded by Nazi Germany. They saved a lot of people and their animals from the Warsaw Ghetto. New Zealand director Niki Caro, who created two of the most uplifting films of the 21st century—Whale Rider, McFarland, U.S.A.—creates a well-acted, beautifully shot, and occasionally haunting depiction of the beginnings of World War II. However, it feels rather familiar.
Antonia (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johann Heldenbergh) are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo. They treat their animals like family. Antonia does her morning routine of riding her bike through the zoo with some of her family friends including a dromedary camel during the film’s opening scene (accompanied by Harry Gregson-Williams’ beautiful score). September 1, 1939, seems like another ordinary day until Germany invades Poland, which results in the start of World War II. With many of the animals killed from the attack, the Zabinskis hide in the zoo while saving hundreds of Jews from the Ghetto. Meanwhile, zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), who happens to be a friend of Hitler’s, snoops around the zoo and offers to take some surviving animals to his zoos in Berlin and Munich.
Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman depict the horrors of the Polish invasion with some effort. The sets and the visuals make it look like a wonderful work of art. Nothing is just as spine-tingling as seeing two lionesses and a tiger roaming around the abandoned streets after the attack or when the German troops put the ghetto in flames. But—one of the problems with The Zookeeper’s Wife is that the tension is hardly there.
With a Polish accent, Chastain’s portrayal the titular role is convincing. With the right amount of optimism and subtlety, it shows how much she cares for those around her after Poland is overrun by the Nazis. In one scene, Antonia is in the basement with a mute Jewish girl Urszula (Shira Haaz), who has been raped. She talks to her about how much she trusts her animals. “You look into their eyes, and you know exactly what is in their hearts,” she says while holding a rabbit. Chastain is a delight!
From playing Austrian F1 racer Niki Lauda in Rush to Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, Brühl gives complexity and fierceness as Lutz Heck. He and Chastain stand out from the rest of the forgettable cast. While it drags and the script can be manipulative at times, and if the characters had more depth, The Zookeeper’s Wife had a lot of potential of being a great movie. One thing for sure, this is nothing compared to Schindler’s List.