Even after more than 75 years since the end of the conflict, I think it’s safe to say that the world of cinema will never run out of stories to tell about the Second World War. From battle field narratives to Holocaust narratives and everything in between, the world changing period has provided the backdrop for some of the most significant and affecting pictures ever made. Though movies of this period aren’t usually something that I seek out, The Zookeeper’s Wife had an intriguing premise that differed from the usual World War Two affair.
Based on a novel by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true life tale of Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), a Polish married couple who braved the wrath of the Nazi regime by hiding hundreds of Jews in their zoo across the war years. The opening sequence is a rather delightful one, following Antonina through the zoo as she displays her uncanny connection with all the animals in her care, establishing her character as one full of empathy and the power to help. However, the tone quickly shifts as the shadow of war looms large, and from light brevity, the film firmly finds its groove as a straight drama with the sucker punch of a devastating zoo destruction scene to prove it. Those who know me know that I absolutely cannot handle watching animals, either real or fictional, being hurt on screen, and an extended bombing sequence that features the deaths of animals in cages almost proves too much, both for the reality of that image and the wider metaphorical implications that such a thing symbolises.
The first twenty minutes or so of The Zookeeper’s Wife are distressing from a purely visual standpoint, and although much of the ‘traditional’ upsetting imagery from this kind of narrative is interspersed and sporadically effective throughout, unfortunately the majority of the picture never quite makes the grade. In trying to tell such an epic, distance spanning story in a relatively short space of time, there is little room for character development outside of the protagonist. The Jewish people that are rescued and housed by the Zabinskis should be some of the most important characters in the story, but they are overshadowed by a misguided romantic obsession plot between Antonina and a German zoologist (Daniel Bruhl) working for Hitler that feels straight out of a melodramatic novel.
The thing is, stories like this, anything to do with the persecution of the Jewish people during the Second World War, are always going to inspire a level of emotion from an audience. Combine that with a remarkable story of human bravery in a unique setting and you get a solid, emotionally satisfying film. What must be remembered is that a film doesn’t necessarily have to be excellent to gain an emotional response, and in The Zookeepers Wife you have a perfect example of a solidly made, 6 out of 10 picture that does that what it says on the tin. Is it a future classic of the sub-genre? No. It is a perfectly acceptable way to spend two hours? Sure.
The beating heart of the picture is Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinska. Battling through a high pitched Polish accent, Chastain exudes angelic charm as the titular zookeeper’s wife, her character’s effortless way with people and way with animals never in question. If the character were not a real historic figure, one might accuse the filmmakers of making their protagonist ‘too perfect’, but the sweet, sympathetic performance that Chastain gives provides a beacon of light in a narrative that at times is really quite overwhelmingly bleak. As her husband Jan, Johan Heldenbergh gives a much more stoic but equally as compelling performance, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats as his daring trips in to the Warsaw ghettos become more and more dangerous as time goes by.
Daniel Bruhl as the somewhat pantomimish villain of the piece plays a typical ‘bad German turned full Nazi’, giving the audience all of the smarminess and unwarranted self confidence that they need hate him almost immediately. And, of course, it goes without saying, shout out to all of the animals that play endearing roles in the film, from pregnant elephants to runaway camels to pet skunks to lion cub and baby rabbits, the presence of the animals in this ghostly post-bombed zoo setting brings a completely different angle and dynamic to the WWII cinema genre.
Overall, The Zookeeper’s Wife is very much a film that feels like it’s been inspired by a generic weepy novel. There is a level of schmaltz and melodrama that clashes with the stark, powerful Holocaust imagery that permeates the plot, and though this kind of thing has been known to work in the past, there is sense here that the melodrama is favoured over the darker elements, and I would very much have preferred the opposite. Not a bad film, but not a great film either.