The Zookeeper's Wife Movie Review
Yes, lots of Jewish people died during the Holocaust. But the Nazis also killed elephants, a happy camel and even a bald eagle at the Warsaw Zoo as they invaded Poland. Bastards.
The Zookeeper’s Wife has Jessica Chastain playing Antonina Zabinski, the wife of a zookeeper (you didn’t see that coming, did you?) who, along with her husband, helps rescue 300 Jews over the course of World War II. It’s an incredible true story on par with Schindler’s List.
The movie, however, isn’t nearly as good.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country and McFarland USA) is no Steven Spielberg after all. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing disastrously wrong with The Zookeeper’s Wife either; but there’s nothing especially substantial about it, either, which is why it’s being released in April instead of award season. It is fine, but nothing more.
Chastain is pretty good in the lead, adopting a decent Polish accent from what I can tell. The screenplay by Angela Workman doesn’t challenge the talented actress in the way you’d expect a Holocaust movie to, though Chastain is able to elevate the material when given the slimmest of opportunities. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh also does a decent job, but he too is trapped by the by-the-numbers tale.
For a movie that focuses on the Warsaw Ghetto, The Zookeeper’s Wife is surprisingly emotionless. The only moments that really stir anger or any kind of reaction are when the zoo animals are put under the gun (warning: if you’re an animal lover, there are some rough scenes)—the human elements aren’t nearly as powerful. I’d say it’s because we’ve all seen depictions of the Holocaust so many times that we’ve become numb to them, but that’s simply not true: The Zookeeper’s Wife just doesn’t make a human connection with either the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto or the heroes of the story, the Zabinskis.
Ultimately, the depiction of the zookeepers is what keeps the film from being more. Despite the title, the movie gives pretty equal weight to the husband, and he arguably does more and risks more to save people from the Nazis (scratch that: he does more than he she does, no question). Unfortunately, Heldenbergh is given a somewhat surface-level and underdeveloped character so that Chastain can have more screen time. As for her character, she ultimately does some pretty stupid things toward the end to put herself and others in peril; the entire climax, presumably dramatized for the movies, would have been unnecessary had she not done what she did. Their son, played by two actors of various ranges, makes increasingly stupid decisions as well.
By the end of the movie it’s hard to care about any of the three.
Daniel Bruhl, who plays the “bad guy” in the film, is a pretty forgettable and uninteresting villain.
For all its shortcomings, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a serviceable drama that tells an impressive true story. Thanks to Chastain’s performance and the film’s overall production values, the movie will make for a worthwhile rental; but Caro’s inability to get inside the characters’ heads and evoke true emotion, let alone build much sense of momentum or suspense, limits The Zookeeper’s Wife to being a second-rate Holocaust drama. There are worse things to be, but this movie could have been a whole lot more.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.