World War II and the Holocaust are still being mined for powerful, tragic and compelling stories about the human spirit. The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book of the same name, is the evocative story of how zookeeper couple Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) sheltered 300 Jews within their property during the war.
The German invasion of Poland and aerial attacks on Warsaw has left the Zabinskas’ beloved Warsaw Zoo badly damaged. Animals have been killed, lost, taken away or slaughtered by the heartless Nazi Reich under orders from Adolf Hitler or his chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The scenes of the chaos, fear and pandemonium in the zoo are heartbreaking, as confused and petrified animals run helter-skelter or fall to their deaths.
A derelict shell, the zoo has become an outpost for German troops, even though Antonina, Jan and their son continue to live there with a few remaining animals. They gradually convert the zoo into a pig farm – a front used to rescue Jews from ghettos and shield them in a spacious basement.
Director Nik Caro remains focussed on Antonina’s resolve and empathy not just for her animals but equally for her fellow citizens. She takes a stand of not running away with her son and follows that through with remarkable strength.
For all the emotional gravitas Chastain breathes into her timid porcelain-like character – juxtaposed with Jan’s bravery and struggles as he observes his wife’s proximity to Lutz – the film is burdened by the unbearable awkwardness of Americans and Europeans doing German, Polish and Russian accents.
Stories of the atrocities committed during WWII abound, but there are few told from a woman’s point of view, and fewer still that explore the impact on helpless animals, for example. This is what makes The Zookeeper’s Wife interesting. While there are tense scenes and earnest storytelling, something seems to have been lost in screenwriter Angela Workman’s adaptation of Ackerman’s book. The distilled story feels superficial and clichéd, and its deep devotion to Antonina doesn’t fittingly serve the larger and more complex subject.