By Ryan Keating-Lambert
The Zookeeper’s Wife, another addition to the holocaust genre that had potential to be fiercely original and thought-provoking, but just ends up being another Anthropoid.
Based on the true story of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) who used their Warsaw zoo as a sanctuary to hide Jews from the local ghetto in Nazi occupied Poland.
Filmed in Prague, The Zookeeper’s Wife had a promising start and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) promptly introduces the zoo along with its colourful inhabitants through Antonina’s morning bike ride. You get a real sense of family and camaraderie in the zoo, and look forward to getting to know the zookeepers and of course, the animals.
Then the invasion comes. Most of the animals are killed either by bombs or shot at the hands of Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), and it’s rather disappointing to see them go so early.
The fact that this film, which is based on the book by Diane Ackerman, was set around a zoo made for an interesting perspective on the war, but rather than establishing a relationship with the animals, they’re killed off in a heartbeat shortly after their introduction. There’s barely time to even mourn them, which may have been the plan from the get-go, but this story could have really benefited from seeing the war from the animal’s perspective – the destruction of an innocence not yet seen in these kinds of films.
From that moment on, there never seems to be a scene that really stands out for its emotional intensity. Chastain strives to bring forward the profound real-life character of Antonina, but is never given adequate time or emotional tension to really get into character.
There’s an overall lack of appropriate timing here. Although they occasionally mark the date in the war with subtitles, there’s no real sense of time having passed with our characters, aside from the dramatic change in actor with the Zabinski’s son Ryszard, whom was actually really difficult to recognise as being the same character.
Another major flaw in the film was the fact that the Zabinski’s would allow such incriminating writing on their walls in the basement. From the moment the first Jewish girl picked up the chalk I thought, ‘is this really happening?’ Perhaps Ackerman’s book or Antonina Zabinski’s ‘People and Animals’ would be a better, more accurate, and less sensational account of this wonderful story. Really, that almost ruined the film for me. A silly plot device.
It seems like The Zookeeper’s Wife has gone to tremendous lengths to dramatise this story and spice things up, but despite their efforts, I still didn’t find any of the scenes particularly memorable.
Photo: Bear Cast Media