By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn - You Can Find Several Other Reviews By Jack Dignan Here As Well
It’s always a problem where, mere hours after having left the theater, I was already starting to forget what happened in the movie I’d just seen. This, sadly, happened with THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE. It’s not that the film was necessarily awful, as it’s not, but instead it’s simply because of how inconsequently mediocre the whole thing is. Even now, when looking back on the film, it’s hard to piece together which plot point related to what plot point, or if the film even explained the connections in the first place. However, I’ve done my best to look back over what it was I watched and bring to you all my thoughts on this extraordinarily mediocre sob story.
Based on a true story, as well as a bestselling book by Diane Ackerman, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE tells the tale of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). The two work as zookeepers – surprise! – at the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. The film begins in 1939, just as the war is getting underway, with German soldiers invading and taking control over the country. World war 2 has arrived. Antonina and Jan’s zoo is bombed, most of their animals either killed or taken overseas, leaving them with nothing. Former friend, albeit loose definition of friend, and owner of the zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), reveals himself to be a Nazi, taking over occupation of the zoo and attempting to use it as a stopover for soldiers. But the Zabinski’s don’t approve.
In an attempt to save not only their Jewish friends, but as many Jews as possible, they come up with a plan to hide them. Antonina and Jan propose to Lutz the idea of using the zoo as a pig farm instead, fattening the pigs up to feed to their soldiers. A solider needs to be fed, after all. Lutz, not seeming to raise any suspicious, agrees. From here, they use this pig farm as a disguise to hide, shelter and look after a large handful of Jews who are to live underneath what was once their zoo. And that’s about it. What follows is nothing more than two hours of bringing Jews in and out of the zoo, with little else going on to sustain its 127 minute runtime.
I’m all for crying in movies. If a film is powerful enough and executed well enough to not only get me to care for their characters, but cry for them, then I’ll more than likely look upon that film favorably. They’ve done their job well. When a film so overtly attempts to bring you to tears, without doing the hard yards in earning those tears, I find myself disappointed in the film’s storytelling more than anything else. Unfortunately, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE does just that. Its story begins, admittedly, okay. The Poland-based war drama does its best at drawing you into this world pre-war, setting up its many characters and establishing them admirably.
When the bombs strike, emotions run high. It’s a scene that comes out of nowhere, much like the bombs would’ve in real life, adding in a strange way to the authenticity of the scenario. Seeing these animals in distress, trapped with no escape in sight, isn’t a pleasant sight. It’s emotionally stirring, but undeservingly so. The only real reason I found myself feeling something was due to director Niki Caro’s somewhat questionable but also justifiable decision to showcase graphic imagery of the dead animals. Granted, it’s realistic in nature, able to convey the horrors this war caused from a perspective we haven’t really seen before. But still, the fact remains that the scene itself, while powerful, is rigorously uncomfortable to sit through.
Once moving past the admittedly effective opening sequence, it’s here where the film starts to go downhill. We live in a world where films documenting the events of World War 1 and World War 2 are aplenty. And it’s not just through film, either. Whether it’s games or television or any other visual medium, on top of the countless books, both fictitious and factual, it’s not hard to find a story set during this horrific time in history. The stories themselves, each in their own right, are powerful and important. Many lives were lost or torn apart. But when looking at it from a film standpoint, no matter how tragic the situation may have been, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE offers us nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before.
Sure, the movie is able to showcase that kindness can be found even in the darkest of times, and I’m all for that, but it’s been done to death. These characters are investing, and while a lot of the reasoning behind all of their decisions is skipped right over, it’s made clear how nice spirited and selfless they may be. They deserve a movie so much better than this one. Once they see the horrors the Jews are being subjected to, they slowly start to smuggle more and more out of their homes and into their zoo. And that’s it. That’s all this movie does. It wasn’t long before I found myself checking my watch.
Even with the high stakes automatically brought on from dealing with such a topic, this film somehow manages to loose all dramatic tension it was so close to having. This is a story that should’ve been tense. I should’ve been anxious watching as Jan makes his way too and from security checkpoints, hiding a handful of Jews in his truck, but I wasn’t. Never is there any suspense, or anything that necessarily goes wrong. He’s practically given everything he needs to succeed right from the get go. Out of nowhere, a character, who is in the film for such a short time that I never recall hearing their name, just suddenly waltzes on up to Jan and offers him guaranteed safe passage through security. Seriously. Good for him, but as a moviegoer this displeased me on no end.
It’s not until the film’s predictable finale where an attempt is made at giving this situation the tension it deserves. Daniel Brühl comes and goes throughout, never really leaving much of an impression despite delivering an intense, rigid performance. When the third act strikes, he’s actually given something to do, playing a relevant and important role in the story. Some of the final scenes he shares with the as-always excellent Jessica Chastain are fierce and troubled. A closing moment between the two manages to be both shocking and then predictable, but nonetheless executed brilliantly. It’s about the only moment throughout where this film truly shines.
When it comes to THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, there’s not a lot that’s necessarily wrong with it. The performances are good, the direction is impressive, and even the set design and costuming looks authentic. It’s just, no matter how well executed this film may be, the story doesn’t do enough to justify a big screen adaption. In real life, the story is an impressive, courageous act that no doubt saved dozens of lives, but when put on film, it doesn’t make for an interesting watch. Making an uneventful World War 2 film with Jessica Chastain in the starring role is no easy feat, yet here we are.
2 1/2 Stars
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