Heroism Without The Emotional Grit in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction book, "The Zookeeper’s Wife" tells the true story of a Polish couple, Jan and Antonina Żabiński, who rescued around 300 Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto from the Holocaust by sheltering and hiding them in their zoo. Some have called it “'Schindler’s List' with Pets.”

Jessica Chastain ("The Help," "Zero Dark Thirty") is wonderful as the sentimental Antonina, who cares for her animals as though they were her children:

“You can trust animals, but not people” are her words to live by.

The film seemed to miss the mark, however, in choosing where to place Antonina’s attention and passion, and thus the film's main subject: the Jews the Żabińskis seek to provide shelter for, or the animals that were the charge of the zoo. Screenwriter Angela Workman went with the latter, making the most emotional scene in the movie one where Antonina risks her life to save a baby elephant by administering CPR to it, rather than risking her life and security for any Jewish person or against any Nazi.

The family’s relationship with the animals under their care almost takes on a Dr. Doolittle side: Antonina allows her son to nap with lion cubs, and her seeming inability to psychologically separate the caretaking of animals from that of desperate human beings comes to a peak when Jan and Antonina take in a teenage girl who had been assaulted by soldiers and whom Antonina treats like a wounded animal.

This is perhaps a commentary on the bizarre, unreal nature of the Holocaust and Nazi invasion to Poles in the moment, but perhaps also a tone-deaf emotional juxtaposition.

Where the film’s dialogue and screenplay is lacking in depth and passion, director Niki Caro ("Whale Rider") steps in to keep up consistent and striking action and visuals. This begins with a grandiose opening scene portraying the Nazi invasion of Poland and Warsaw, bombers, armored tanks, and destruction galore. Even more powerful is seeing how this invasion impacted the naïve and unaware animals and their reactions to the air raids and leftover smoldering animal cages.

As with many other films portraying a story in a non-English speaking setting in English, the various characters’ accents are dizzyingly inconsistent. Chastain struggles to maintain a glimmer of a Polish accent, Daniel Brühl ("Woman in Gold"), who portrays zoologist turned Nazi eugenicist, carries an impeccable English accent, and Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh portrays Jan with an accent somewhere in between. In the end, the Nazi sounds clear, educated, and well-spoken, while the heroic resistance fighters come across as unsure of themselves and their words, let alone their life-saving actions.

Overall, "The Zookeeper’s Wife" is a soft-spoken Holocaust-era film, depicting an incredible true story in a less-than-incredible fashion; beautiful visuals and a pleasing soundtrack do not make up for its lack of tension and emotional cognizance.