Magazine article Screen International

'The Zookeeper's Wife': Review

Magazine article Screen International

'The Zookeeper's Wife': Review

Article excerpt

Focus Features' Second World War drama is set in Warsaw and stars Jessica Chastain in the title role

Dir: Niki Caro. US. 2017. 126mins

The Zookeeper's Wife honours the bravery of a Polish couple who safeguarded nearly 300 Jews during the Second World War, but this considered, muted drama can't escape a fussy tastefulness -- not to mention inevitable comparisons to more crackling treatments of similar subject matter. Jessica Chastain gives a quietly emotional performance, despite being saddled with a less-than-riveting character, and director Niki Caro resists manipulative story beats for a sombre tone that slowly accumulates dramatic force. And yet, The Zookeeper's Wife remains frustratingly distant and undernourished, the worthiness of the story consistently outpacing the execution.

Caro initially hits upon a fresh way to make the war's atrocities shock the viewer

Opening in the US on March 31, this Focus Features release will lean hard on Chastain's marquee value, although fans of Diane Ackerman's 2007 nonfiction book may also be intrigued. Respectful reviews, paired with the fact that this is currently one of the few higher-profile art-house offerings in that market, may lead to decent box office, but commercial expectations should be tempered.

Spanning roughly seven years starting in 1939, The Zookeeper's Wife is set in Warsaw, where Antonina Zabinska (Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) operate a modest zoo. Once war breaks out and the German army invades Poland, they decide to put their own safety at risk by protecting their Jewish neighbours, housing them underneath their home.

The film's plot will remind viewers of a vaguely similar storyline in Schindler's List, which was also based on a true story. Comparisons end there, though, since Antonina and Jan, as laid out in Angela Workman's screenplay, lack the moral ambiguity that bedevilled Oskar Schindler. Instead, the characters' main obstacle is to keep their operation a secret from Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a dedicated zoologist and Nazi officer who admires the couple's zoo -- but, also, secretly pines for the lovely Antonina.

As played by Chastain, Antonina has the potential to be a unique character within the realm of war dramas. A lover of animals, she confides to a friend that the reason she prefers them to her fellow humans is that she knows she can trust them. Likewise, Caro initially hits upon a fresh way to make the war's atrocities shock the viewer, giving us a zoo full of animals whose lives are imperilled once the Nazis invade. The innocence of these majestic creatures catches us off-guard, giving us a new perspective into Hitler's cruelty. …

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