Originally Published on Salty Popcorn - You Can Find Several Other Reviews By Jack Dignan Here As Well
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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