Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
Adapted from Diane Ackerman's 2007 book of the same title, The Zookeeper's Wife tells the story of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain), who along with her husband Jan, used their zoo in Warsaw to protect hundreds of Polish Jews from Nazi occupation during World War II.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) uses Ackerman's work to follow the Żabiński 's efforts across a six year period, as they are subjected to the harshest of conditions, losing much of what they have while struggling to endure and protect others in the face of mass slaughter and brutality. It's a devastating period for sure, and Caro subjects the viewer to a wide degree of violence, both towards humans and the various animals within the zoo, which eventually becomes a base for the Nazis, led by Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). While it feels like too much story is packed into the film's two hour runtime, the sense of ruin and degradation within the Żabiński's zoo is portrayed with excruciating detail; matching the same sense of inner turmoil as its inhabitants.
Jessica Chastain is one of the greatest actresses in her era and here she gives another accomplished, multifaceted performance. She appears in nearly every scene as Antonina (it being her story of course) and if there's one devout reason to watch The Zookeeper's Wife, it's for her. Bruhl is thoroughly menacing as Heck, first introduced as an acquaintance of the Zabinskis, though soon he shows his true colors and penchant for attaining power under Hitler's command. He doesn't play the part as a caricature, allowing for a sense of intricacy in fleshing out the role to counter against Antonina, and the scenes they share together are thoroughly tense.
The one aspect of the film that keeps it from being truly great is the way it tries to compound so many moments from Ackerman's book within its runtime; at another hour longer it would have achieved a better sense of flow, though the end result is a case of trying to do too much. This comes most glaringly in the final act, where a great deal of plot points are compressed without much time left to really let the viewer process them. It's a shame because the story itself is one that deserves to be told, and for the most part, Caro does an admiral job.
The Zookeeper's Wife a truly remarkable story, and one that definitely feels inspired by other accounts of the Holocaust like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. For those interested in this area of history it's definitely worth a watch, as well as those who have a firm interest in seeing anything with Jessica Chastain on screen.