The Zookeeper's Wife review – Jessica Chastain drama is wildly inconsistent

The true story of a couple helping Jews at the Warsaw Zoo during the second world war has moments of power but also suffers from an uneven script

My favorite moment in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs is when George Wyner explains the villains’ dastardly plan and Rick Moranis turns directly to the camera and says “everybody got that?” I was reminded of this during The Zookeeper’s Wife when Jan Zabinski, the zookeeper (Johan Heldenbergh), explains to his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain), how they can use the tunnels and shelters in their now empty zoo to aid Jews trying to escape the Warsaw ghetto. Hearing his plan, she nods, gives a faraway look and says: “A human zoo.”

It’s a flabbergasting bit of writing and fairly indicative of why this adaptation of a successful book with an A-list actress is being released in March and not November. All the elements are lined up for a major prestige success, until the movie itself starts to roll. Which isn’t to say this is a disaster; director Niki Caro actually has a considerable amount of storytelling finesse here and there. There are simply way too many moments like the howler cited above to recommend this without serious reservations.

The opening scenes are a giddy swirl of Antonina’s kindness. She rides her bike through the Warsaw zoo, feeding apples to hippopotamuses, a small camel trotting with her. But by the time she’s giving CPR to a baby elephant as the mama elephant trumpets with worry, it begins to feel like a Monty Python sketch. Chastain goes all-in on her Polish accent, to the point of distraction. The actual European actors, the Flemish Heldenbergh and German Daniel Brühl (playing “Hitler’s head zoologist” Lutz Heck), pump the brakes a bit on their inflection, leaving Chastain out to dry by comparison.

The movie works best, though, when director Caro keeps things dialogue-free. The scenes in the ghetto are horrifying and, impressively, able to find corners of life that haven’t been exposed in the myriad Holocaust films that have come before. Despite starvation and terror, there are still teachers and pupils. And though our righteous Gentile heroes are putting their lives on the line to smuggle Jews out with a garbage removal scheme, other Poles dress up to take the second world war equivalent of a selfie in front of the fortified gate.

There are additional grace notes, such as an evening ritual when the basement of refugees come up for air once Antonina gives the all-clear by playing her piano. Tension mounts though when Brühl’s Lutz (who has a mad scheme to breed aurochs on the property) keeps sniffing around. He has eyes for Antonina, and they bond over their love of animals. The film almost gets into interesting territory with their relationship, but soon chucks that in favor of Lutz being just another diabolical Nazi.

Few of the hidden Jews are given the time to establish themselves as real characters, but Caro does good work with shorthand. There are some devastating images of children being loaded on to trains, their jolly, bearded teacher (Arnost Goldflam) trying to prevent them from panicking, though well aware himself they are en route to their doom. Caro goes in for closeups on each cherubic, smiling child with outstretched arms, waiting for a lift up into the cattle car.

But other scenes lack this perfect simplicity. The Zabinski basement is site to a Passover seder at the same moment the ghetto is burned, and the intercutting is far from subtle. The movie also finds a way to end with a bit of a chase sequence. These are disappointing style choices considering there are other moments in the film that work so well. (There is also quite a bit of animal killing – all faked, I’m sure, but some in the crowd I saw this with were audibly revolted, so this is your trigger warning.)

More than 300 Jews were rescued because of the zoo maneuvers, and the film does a good job working through the moral struggles of people who could not turn a blind eye to injustice. They do not come away unscathed, but it is evident that these were people who would have fared far worse if they didn’t do anything at all. All told The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story worth telling, even if there are a good number of not-so-hot spots along the way.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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