Dir: Niki Caro
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton
Spoiler Level: Light (Unless you are somehow unaware of the events of WWII)
I have a few rules when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, and one of those rules is: If Jessica Chastain is in it, make every attempt to see it. I haven’t regretted it yet – she’s stellar in just about everything. Then again, I did manage to miss out on Snow White and the Huntsman: Winter’s War. So, there’s that – though I’m sure Chastain is not the primary cause for that film’s poor performance.
Since The Zookeeper’s Wife has finally landed in my hometown, my mom (my frequent cinema-going companion) and I ventured out to see it, despite a relatively lukewarm reception.
The film is based on the true story of zoologist Jan Żabiński (Heldenbergh) and his titular wife, Antonina (Chastain) who operate a zoo in Warsaw, which features a variety of impressive, exotic animals. When WWII ignites in Poland in the summer of 1939, their zoo is no longer able to function as it once did, and as the Jewish residents of the city are herded into the ghetto and the horrors of Hitler’s rise overtake Warsaw, the couple must adapt to their new circumstances and they begin the incredible task of secretly harboring and ferrying both friends and strangers to safety via their re-purposed zoo.
The film’s best feature is the cast; Chastain is predictably marvelous as Antonina, conveying an empathy for animals (she’s basically an elephant-whisperer) that is only matched by her compassion for and willingness to help those in need, even if it means risking her own safety. She becomes the center of the film, but Heldenbergh’s portrayal of Jan is similarly impressive; I found his scenes and character development equally as compelling, even though Chastain’s character is intended to be the heart of the film. The pair function extremely well together, especially as Jan and Antonina struggle to adapt to the new state of their zoo after the bombing, then grapple with the decision to involve themselves in daring attempts to rescue those trapped in the ghetto, and all the ensuing battles they face each day they put their own lives (as well as their young son, Ryszard, played by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku) at risk. A major highlight for me was how both Antonina and Jan expressed hesitance about taking Jewish friends and strangers into their home, and weighed the possible repercussions that would befall them if they were caught rebelling against the Nazis. Jan and Antonina’s decision was not easily made, but, after they arrange to assist one friend, it soon opens the door to even more dangerous attempts and intricate plans, and that initial hesitance quickly evolves into sturdy resolve. Watching the strain of the war and their resistance efforts on their family and their relationship was the most engrossing aspect of the film for me; though the film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it was Jan and Antonina’s actions, struggles, and scenes as a duo that left the biggest impression.
The third lead, Daniel Brühl, is convincingly sleazy and intimidating as German zoologist Lutz Heck. Granted, anyone with the name of “Heck” is guaranteed to be at least somewhat villainous, but Brühl’s portrayal, while occasionally vicious, is also grounded by his humanity – at times, he even comes across as brash and foolish rather than calculated and cunning. His motivations, though horrendously skewed and deplorable on the moral scale, are not done without purpose. As a result, the character is not degraded to a 2D, mindlessly-evil Nazi, which makes for a different sort of monster; one much more frightening and believable. However, at a few points, I felt like I was watching a palpably angry Helmut Zemo. Also – sidenote – super nice to see the talented Michael McElhatton (A.K.A., Father-of-the-Year Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) in something where he isn’t a complete asshat!
However, despite a handful of great performances (shout-out to the adolescent camel, who is the star of the animals) the other aspects of the film struggle to stand out. The music (Harry Gregson-Williams) is excellent, the costuming/makeup is superb, and the cinematography is gorgeous, especially the lush colors. However, despite those key factors, it’s a great film that isn’t great; it tries to make the viewer scramble for the tissue box, but, though there are heartbreaking moments (Urszula’s plight, the devastation of the zoo, the horrific conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto,) the film’s maneuvering and shifting direction makes it difficult to invest and pinpoint what the focus is meant to be, which creates a conundrum – the film tries to do too much, yet, as a result of that, it also does too little. Each time it plucks up a new thread, it leaves others dangling, even as it strives to have them all tied up in a neat bow at the end. The viewer can experience a vast spectrum of emotions (and it delivers lots of gut punches), but it ends up being more of a detriment to the film than a high point. Stylistically, the film is stunning and it’s a visual triumph, but from a narrative standpoint, it hits a few snags that no amount of heartwarming or heart-wrenching moments can patch up.
But I will say that the film is worth watching, if just for the performance of the lead actors, and the overarching story of the is a compelling one, as it draws on a segment of history that, while well-known, still contains so many untold stories. Had I not seen the film I might never have known about the Żabińskis and their zoo. It might not end up earning many statues at the end of awards season, but the film is entertaining; it delivers a strong message, features powerful performances, and it’s got a bunch of cute animals… not all of the animal-based scenes are cheerful ones (be forewarned, oh ye of tender heart!), but seeing adorable lion cubs is never a bad thing.
I haven’t read Diane Ackerman’s book, which the film drew from, nor have I read Antonina’s diaries, which are only available in Polish, so I don’t know exactly where the film crossed over from “historical” to “historical fiction.” I’m sure artistic liberties were taken, with certain events exaggerated and others downplayed. I wonder about the tension between Antonina and Lutz, the backstories and introductions of some of the people they assisted, a few other key interactions between the characters, and the events of the final confrontation, as certain elements of the film seem like they were added for dramatic effect. I’m not a stickler for 100% accuracy (largely because it’s pretty much impossible) but the more accurate, the better – more toward the Tora! Tora! Tora! end of the spectrum than Pocahontas. I mean, I like The Patriot well enough but they shouldn’t be showing it in history classes. In any case, The Zookeeper’s Wife, while it blurs the fictional line, doesn’t tread into Braveheart territory, and despite artistic liberties, the scenes and scenarios felt plausible, and nothing left me saying “There’s no way that happened.” I’ve poked around a bit on the internet, and, from what I’ve gleaned thus far, it seems that the film does contain several historically accurate scenes and depictions, which is encouraging, but I haven’t delved too deep.
Though it might not land itself on any “Best Of 2017” lists, The Zookeeper’s Wife is far from a letdown. It shows an important perspective of a war that has been recounted hundreds of times in literature, film, and other media; a perspective that many might not know anything about. It’s not perfect, but if the film brings a greater awareness to the real story of Jan and Antonina and their zoo, and inspires others to do more research into that tidbit of the past, then the film has accomplished something great, even if the film itself fails to break new ground.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10