The Zookeeper's Wife
Starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton
Well, I found it! No, not the best film of the year, but the yearly pre-award season movie I get excited for, based on an impeccable trailer and cast (that Sigur Rós music sealed the deal). Like “Suffragette” in 2015, “A Light Between Oceans” last year, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” takes this year’s award for advertising excellence and delivering mediocrity. Two time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Help”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) is the selling point of the film, bringing the courageous Polish zookeeper Antonina Zabinski to life. Along with her husband, the duo helped save hundreds of Jews during WWII making this a “Schindler’s List” type vehicle. Acclaimed New Zealand director Niki Caro (“McFarland USA”) is behind the camera here. She directed both Keisha Castle Hughes (“Whale Rider”) and Charlize Theron (“North Country”) to Oscar nominations early in her career.
Jan Zabinski (Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Chastain) run the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, bringing happiness to both people and animals with their exhibits. In 1939, with the world at war, the zoo was bombed and the zoo closed. Many of their most prized animals shot and killed by Nazi’s under order. Hitler’s top Zooologist Lutz Heck (Brühl) has made a deal with the Zabinski’s, taking some of the animals to his zoo for safe keeping and experimentation. With so many Jews being hauled off to the camps, Antonina proposes they shelter as many as they can hide in their basement, A Human Zoo she calls it. If their guests below hear the piano playing during the day, they must remain absolutely quiet, heard at night means safe to come out. Antonia must play a dangerous game with Heck who visits her often, while she allows his affections to shield their secret in the basement.
Takes this year’s award for advertising excellence and delivering mediocrity.
While it’s obvious Sigur Rós wasn’t doing the score for the film (although they did for “Captain Fantastic” last year), “Live by Night” composer Harry Gregson-Williams original composition does not stir the emotions. I think that’s where the film delivers the most disappointment, falling in line as a procedural WWII genre film instead of reaching out and touching the viewer. We get numerous films each year that showcase a new interesting facet of WWII (i.e. “The Woman in Gold”, “Allied”, “Anthropoid”), and the Zabinski’s certainly fit that bill. There is also an editing problem here, midway through the film, after a love scene that I suppose is more important than we realize, all of a sudden Antonina is ready to give birth. Another subplot featuring Jan joining the resistance also seems to appear out of nowhere.
I had no problem with Chastain’s accent and her performance, the material she is given, suits her fine. It’s not however, along the caliber of the material like “Miss Sloane” where she stuns the viewer with her talent. “Game of Thrones” Michael McElhatton, who might have been better cast as Jan, plays a minor character, going against his familiar Bolton persona. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” isn’t a bad film, it accomplishes the goal of bringing the Zabinski’s courageous efforts to the masses in an accessible movie. It just never rises above similar films and doesn’t pack the emotional punch the trailer almost falsely advertises. While it won’t be an Oscar contender in any category, (the March curse is obviously real), “The Zookeeper’s Wife” should please fans of the bestselling book.
Disappointing, not because it isn’t good, but because it isn’t great.