Film: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”; Director: Niki Caro; Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor, Iddo Goldberg, Shira Haas, Michael McElhatton, Vad Maloku; Rating: ***
Experiencing a war is like living in hell. The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking their all to save lives during World War II.
Based on the best-seller by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife, recounts the true story of Antonina Zabinski – of how she and her husband, Jan Zabinski director of the Warsaw Zoo, saved the lives of 300 Jews who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto following the German invasion of Poland.
Set in 1939, the film delves into the lives of the duo who operate the Warsaw Zoo, the largest and the most prolific Zoo in 1930s Europe. They nurture a variety of animals. Then on September 1, 1939, Antonina’s world is rocked when she and her son witness the horrific death of innocent zoo animals by bombs dropped by the German army who have overtaken Warsaw.
Soon, Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the head of the Berlin Zoo and “Hitler’s Zoologist” arrives at the zoo to take possession of the finest of the animals. Antonina reluctantly allows him to take them in the hope that they would survive.
With Warsaw under the control of the Nazis and the safety of all Jews living in the city in peril, Jan and Antonina decide to shelter their friends Maurccy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) and his partner Magda Gross (Efrat Dor) in their basement. But then they realise that they just cannot save the lives of only their friends, so they open their doors to strangers as well.
Directed by Niki Caro from a screenplay by Angela Workman, the plot gets complicated with Dr. Heck developing a soft corner for Antonina, thereby making Jan suspect his wife’s fidelity. The narrative has enough suspense and offers many promises to bring to life a compelling film experience. But, it ultimately trudges along with a middle-of-the-path script that makes the entire viewing experience a clean, sterile affair.
For a holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes seem abnormally low. The Zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. And, the danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment.
The film is naturally Jessica Chastain’s canvas. She is caring and gentle as a person trying to navigate her way through desperate moments. She is vulnerable yet strong as a wife, mother and protector of the distressed and anxious people, who are in her care. She also plays the part of a reluctant seductress with natural ease. Her scenes with Lutz Heck create tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play.
Johan Heldenbergh as Jan Zabinski complements Jessica. Timothy Radford and Val Maloku, who play the young and the older version of Antonina’s son Ryszard, are charming. But it’s Daniel Bruhl as Lutz Heck who brings the screen to life.
On the visual front, with decent production values, the film captures the era to perfection. With a blend of live action drama from Cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s lens and computer generated images, every element from the set to the costumes to the animated animals, seem convincingly perfect.
The viewing experience is accentuated by Harry Gregson-Williams’ pleasing orchestral score.
But overall, the film lacks the energy and vitality of a perfect film as it does not bring out the experience of evil nor the experience of being in hell to the fullest.