The Zookeeper’s Wife is a WWII film based on a true story starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton and Daniel Brühl. The film follows Polish zookeeper Jan Zabinski (Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Chastain) who own a zoo based in Warsaw, Poland. The zoo is beautiful, and they treat every animal with loving care and they live an idyllic life. This all comes crashing down when World War II begins, and Warsaw is devastated when the Nazis take up residence and start to round up the Jewish populace and isolate them in a slum. Seeing this happening to their friends Jan and Antonina decide to take on an impossible mission and save as many of these people as possible.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a brilliant film; it’s another testament to the talent of Jessica Chastain who is a timid but loving human being who knows how to care for all creatures big and small. She is a loving motherly figure to the animals in her zoo and then to the “guests” who visited her house during the occupation of Warsaw. This is evident in a heartbreaking scene where she tries to connect with a rape victim and bring the poor girl back from the brink. It’s this kind of quiet strength that enamoured Antonina to me, and each character had an aspect to their personality that was wonderfully fleshed out and explored. Particular highlights were Jan who sees’s the horrors inflicted on the community he lives in and the Jewish people who populate it, and he puts himself, and those he loves in further danger when he see’s avenues to further help the Jewish community. On the other side of the spectrum is Lutz Heck, known as Hitler’s zoologist he is a man with his questionable motivations in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Daniel Brühl portrays him well, coming off as a suave and debanour individual who fascinates Antonina initially sadly as the film progresses and the brutality of the Nazis is becoming more and more apparent the smooth figure that Jan and Antonina met disappears as Lutz gives into the Nazi propaganda.
Another commendable aspect of the film is the cinematography, the opening shots of the movie are stunning as we’re treated to a wonderfully understated configuration of a zoo. The animals are a lot of room to roam, and there is a sincere sense of warmth in the treatment of them. The animals when they are shown are very much a presence in the film and watching the devastation of what is essentially their home as well is surprisingly emotional, sometimes more than the rest of the movie. This may be because I had never thought that such innocent creatures would have been a part of such a terrible moment in human history. There are some powerful moments of symbolism when you see a lion and a tiger roaming a street while citizens from above lookout frightened to leave their homes due to the danger of these foreign beasts roaming their streets unchecked.
Sadly though there are problems with The Zookeeper’s Wife which let it down for me. The impact of the film’s subject matter is lessened as the film’s runtime of 2 hours was far too long. If 20 minutes had been shaved off, this movie would have been far more effective. There are also issues with the screenplay as the film begins to become safe and predictable towards the third act. This is a shame as the movie started so high but the meanders towards its soft and predictable finale.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a good film, filled with emotional moments and a harrowing subject matter. Unfortunately, a bloated runtime and a predictable third act stops The Zookeeper’s Wife from fully utilising the potential of its story.