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The Zookeeper's Wife: Animals and world war, too

Rating: ***

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THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Niki Caro
STARS Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife (Photo: Focus Features)
  • Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife (Photo: Focus Features)

While the title might bring to mind a ‘40s flick like The Farmer’s Daughter or a Something Weird Video release like The Farmer’s Other Daughter, The Zookeeper’s Wife is in reality a harrowing World War II drama based on the bestselling book by Diane Ackerman.

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), it tells the true-life story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain), a married couple in charge of the Warsaw Zoo during the 1930s. The zoo’s stellar reputation throughout Europe of course doesn’t help it when the Nazis come a-calling, and even the benevolence of Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the head of the Berlin Zoo, is curtailed once he becomes Hitler’s chief zoologist and begins to care more about killing Jews than saving animals. The Zabinskis, on the other hand, want to save all types of lives. Using the remains of their bombed-out zoo as cover – they wisely offer it up to the Germans as a pig farm to provide food for the troops – they become an integral part of the underground movement, hiding Jews within their house for indeterminate amounts of time and moving them to safety when possible.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is rated PG-13, but don’t be fooled into thinking that designation means the movie is two hours of Chastain pulling a Doctor Dolittle and talking to the animals while blissfully unaware of the atrocities surrounding her. On the contrary, the picture is brutal in its implications if not always in its visuals, and Caro is able to fully telegraph the horrors of the conflict without exploiting them. Some have criticized the film for being too tasteful, but c’mon, do we really need to see a young Jewish girl (a representational fictional character hauntingly played by Shira Haas) being raped by two German soldiers to understand what happened to her? Her appearance and shell-shocked demeanor following the incident speaks volumes.

The picture only loses its footing during the final chunk, when the steady pace and believable scenarios give way to a woefully truncated timeline and a few narrative whoppers (for instance, I’m still trying to figure out how a woman walking miles through thick-as-molasses crowds can reach a specific locale before a convoy of jeeps and trucks, considering both left from the same spot at roughly the same time). For the most part, though, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an accomplished picture, offering a fascinating history lesson even as it remains wholly topical. With its unique zoo setting, it should appeal to animal lovers all over the world. And with its narrative involving the fight against Nazis, it should appeal to at least 48.2% of this nation’s population.

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