“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a well-intended and competently made film but in the same breath an utterly disposable historical film. Based off the worldwide best-selling book this is material that has the making of a haunting and emotional World War II, Holocaust-themed movie. It’s no secret that the subject matter has a lot of similarities with one of Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces “Schneider’s List”. This movie was never going to be that, but director Niki Caro does seem to miss big opportunities to really impact us emotionally. This isn’t to say there isn’t anything worth a damn; quite the opposite in fact. There are a number of well-done scenes and performances in this movie (some performances are much better than others). However, these moments don’t amount to a complete story. There is also a strange sense of withholding from the filmmakers involved and doesn’t go the lengths a film like this feel it’s required.
What is the story? “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” tells the story of a couple in Warsaw, Poland named Antonina Zabinski and Jan Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh). After the invasion of Poland by Nazi, Germany their Zoo is almost destroyed. What remains, the couple begins to hide the local Jews from the German army. To make matters worse, the head German Zoologist has started to use their zoo as a place to breed Ox and has an attraction to Antonina.
I have not read the book so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this adaptation and I was quite looking forward to it after consuming a very well done trailer. The movie feels authentic and true to the era that in which the story resides (with the exception of nearly everyone speaking English). The costume and production design is very well done. There are a few surprises in the story that I wasn’t expecting especially with Daniel Bruhl’s character; the German Zoologist’s relationship to Antonina. A relationship that I thought added a level of complexity to the narrative but sadly it doesn’t get played up as much as it probably should.
Daniel Bruhl plays the head German scientist and his casting is not inspired nor is it for the better. Bruhl at this point feels type casted playing a Nazi once again. This movie though he overplays his hand way too early and is too much of a snake. We know he is a Nazi and he is on the wrong side but Bruhl seems to take that as to being over the top and not at the very least seeming semi-normal towards the beginning of the film. You know he is going to be the big guy from the first lines of dialogue. If he started off at least somewhat likable it would have made for a big cathartic moment in at least two scenes towards the end.
The movie clearly has a lot of history it’s trying to tell in a short two-hour runtime. Some scenes feel rushed and others not set up properly. The movie’s story stretches from 1939 to 1945 and will jump from year to year without much warning. I am not well versed in the history of this particular moment but this movie gives off the impression that it’s trying very hard to cover all the moments in this historical event so it jumps around very quickly. This might have been the case where I would argue being less faithful would have been to this movie’s advantage. If this isn’t very faithful like I think it is, well then it’s just poor storytelling.
This is not to say the moments in this story are done poorly. Not at all. There are great and powerful scenes in the movie. There is one scene involving a young girl that’ll crush you. There are more than a few moments like this throughout. With dealing with a subject matter such as this it’s not hard to have those moments but they are none the less there and Niki Caro directs these scenes wonderfully. There is a sense though that isn’t as much grit as this story needs. The PG-13 rating carries some of the weight but not enough of what this subject matter deserve. I also got the sense this movie did not have the budget it needed and the film was shooting around it. For instance, during the initial air raid bombing scene there was never a shot of airplanes in the air. We heard them, and saw silhouette but never an actual shot. It felt like the filmmakers were editing around something.
This, though, is a pretty harmless movie. It’s well made enough, just enough good performances (especially by Chastain) and has enough emotional moments for most movie goers to enjoy the experience they had. It’s safe enough to be shown in high school history courses. “The Zookeepers Wife” feels disposable though and it won’t be remembered alongside the giants of the genre nor will it leave a long lasting impact part for a passing few scenes. I like some of the work director Niki Caro brought to the movie but for myself, it was not enough to revisit it and I felt it missed a big opportunity to tell a moving story of survival and the good that people do in the horrors of great atrocities.