Even in movies that aren’t good, such as last year’s Miss Sloane, Jessica Chastain has proven to be a major highlight. She can give a commanding performance that deserves to be in something better. But what The Zookeeper’s Wife proves is that she can’t always be the movie’s brightest spot.
Chastain doesn’t give an all-around bad performance in The Zookeeper’s Wife; there are moments where she does exceptionally well. But the biggest flaw with her performance is her attempt at a Polish accent. She slips in and out of it for the duration of the movie, and it doesn’t even sound authentic. It’s understandable why she was chosen to play the role, since the rest of the cast is filled with people who don’t have the amount of star power she does. But it’s also frustrating that she isn’t as great as she should be, and the movie is also something that isn’t as great as it should be.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the book by Diane Ackerman, which, itself, is based on a remarkable true story. Starting off in 1939 Poland, Antonia Żabiński (Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), own and maintain the Warsaw Zoo. When the Nazis invade, the Żabińskis’ zoo is bombed, and a lot of the animals that lived there are killed or run away. With the Nazis now in control, the Żabińskis devise a plan to rescue Jewish people by housing them in vacant areas of the zoo. Their quick thinking and bravery resulted in 300 Jews being saved by the end of the war.
This is one of many untold stories you don’t hear about in history class, but it’s something that absolutely needs to be told. The Żabińskis did something uniquely heroic, and it’s great to know that more people now have the ability to hear about it. But Niki Caro’s retelling doesn’t have the emotional impact a story like this deserves. It glosses over a lot of material, leaving more to be desired when it comes to knowing more about the people being rescued and even the film’s two main protagonists. There are a lot of quick jumps in timeline that make keeping up with the film maddening.
Daniel Brühl plays the main villain, a German zoologist named Lutz Heck. He’s not given much time to delve into his character aside from being the typical Nazi bad guy. Some of the actions taken by Heck and the other Nazis are despicable, but they’re also not entirely shocking. It’s almost expected of them to do some of the things they do here, and that’s a bit of a letdown.
Watching The Zookeeper’s Wife, I kept hoping that the editor would take a break from cutting so quickly. It’s not just that it wants to cram in so much information in such a small amount of time, but it also has so many different focus points during the action and during the quieter scenes that we’re given no time to grasp onto the scenario. One scene has Antonia talking to her husband, and they’re both in the shot. Maybe a second or two later, the movie cuts to a close-up of her. When the Nazis pay a visit, and the “guests,” as they’re called, are supposed to keep quiet, there are quick reaction shots to show the fear in everyone’s eyes. But whatever tension or emotion is supposed to be felt is missing, since we don’t get much time to connect to the characters or to the situation.
There is some beautiful scenery throughout the movie. One particular scene shows Antonia standing in an ash snowfall as a section of Warsaw is being burned. It’s rich in color and haunting to witness. Some of the scenes in which the animals are being killed are heartbreaking, more so than when it happens to human characters. But, at times, it also has that feel of a safely-played Oscar hopeful.
What’s more disappointing is the fact that the Blu-ray for The Zookeeper’s Wife has only 15 minutes worth of special features. A few short deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look, and a brief glimpse at the actual Żabińskis are all the disc contains. It would have been nice to have a much more in-depth look at the actual people of the story than what is on the Blu-ray.
It’s nice to see the Żabińskis story get told. I just wish it was done in a better movie.