The Zookeeper's Wife movie review: Intricately designed emotional film that doesn't quite achieve greatness
The World War II film The Zookeeper’s Wife is a handsomely shot, tenderly directed film about a curious incident during the holocaust, and it does well to differentiate itself from other films from the genre. If you’re in the mood for an intricately designed emotional journey this is the film to watch, even though it doesn’t completely achieve the greatness that it could easily have.
Directed by Niki Caro who made the terrific Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife presents all the familiar cinematic elements of WW2 with a fascinatingly different perspective. The story follows a real life Polish woman named Antonia (Jessica Chastain) who leads an angelic life – at home she wakes up her son who is seen sleeping next to baby lions, at work she rides a cycle through a zoo containing magnificent animals, smiling and touching most of the animals as if they’re her children. She runs the Eden-like zoo with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and the animals walk in and out of their rooms in a perfect natural harmony between man and beast. Things take a nightmarish turn when German bombs drop in Poland and the zoo is pulverised.
As the horror of war escalates, we’re taken on a ruthlessly emotional journey where Antonia tries her best to find a new home for the surviving animals, while ending up taking refuge in one of the animal cages for survival. It’s a perfectly dreadful situation and the fact that this is a real story makes the narrative all the more powerful.
However unlike last year’s Son of Saul the film doesn’t go all in on the visceral horror of the Polish prisoners. There’s a sensitive, empathetic Schindler’s List-like undercurrent of humanity in every scene. In one of the more delicate moments Antonia serves food and plays music for the other people in the cage ghetto, reminding them that the war doesn’t need to be a part of their lives. That is, of course, not to say the film is simply treacle — there’s a fairly disturbing subplot featuring Daniel Bruhl as a German who initially offers to help the animals to safety but then is forced to shoot them.
Caro’s direction, much like Spielberg’s, is primarily focused on the element of a family being torn apart and struggling to unite. So you get many gut wrenching images of children being taken away and other holocaust tropes that are guaranteed to get your tear ducts working. The downside of this is the film may feel perfunctory in nature, rather than a revisionist one, because anyone who has seen a couple of WW2 movies would find the third act a predictable emotional wrangle.
The other aspect that bogs down the film is the usage of Chastain (and other characters) speaking English in a Polish accent in 1939 Poland. I get that this tactic is a requirement to make any WW2 film more mainstream but it becomes difficult to not see Chastain as an American playing a Polish woman. The authenticity of the painstakingly built atmosphere within the film takes a hit every time you realise it’s an actor speaking in a fake accent. And once you’re taken out of the film you’ll tend to look at the other failings in the narrative. A Polish actress in the central role would have truly elevated the film to another level.
Watch the trailer here: