Who needs humans when you’ve got fluffy little animals?
The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), and the two, when they aren’t loving one another, are watching over the Warsaw Zoo and ensuring that everything is all hunky dory. That all changes, however, when their country is invaded by the Nazis, and the two are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a guy who loves animals so much that he wants to resurrect an already-extinct species for some reason, and hopes to get the help of not just Hitler himself, but the Zabinski’s, too. The Zabinskis wouldn’t normally be cool with this, but in these times and these circumstances, they decide that it’s best to play ball with Heck, so that they can continue to covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Zookeeper’s Wife seems as though it’s going to be an interesting change-of-pace for the “Holocaust film” sub-genre of films, by focusing on animals and how one zoo in particular was affected by this awful travesty, but it doesn’t go there. Instead, it shows a couple of animals being killed, a zoo being blown up, and that’s about it. Everything else that happens is tired, conventional, and so incredibly familiar that they could have ripped-out footage from other Holocaust flicks, planted them in here, and it wouldn’t have been all that shocking, or really changed the movie up.
It’s still a bore and one that, honestly, feels as if it doesn’t really know what it wants to be just yet.
Sure, it’s a Holocaust movie about the Zabinskis, how they banded together, and faced all odds, to ensure that hundreds of Jews’ lives were saved, but it also wants to be about something a little more. It’s sort of about their marriage and how Antonina may need a little more from her attention from her husband, but really, it isn’t. There’s some forced moments between Chastain and Brühl’s characters where we’re supposed to see it as possible sexual-tension, but the movie never makes up its mind about that. It just touches that possible idea/subplot, moves on, and continues to add-on more and more random ideas/subplots.
And yes, it’s a mess, but normally, that kind of a mess would mean that it is, at the very least, interesting – for some reason, the Zookeeper’s Wife is not interesting, at all. It’s boring and feels like it was made-for-TV, but had such a big-budget and cast, that they had to give it their all, put it on the big screen, make tons of money, and hope that people didn’t pay too much attention to the sheer dullness of it all. It’s mean to be an uplifting and sentimental tale of love, humanity, and survival, in the midst of pure hatred and violence, but really, it feels like another Holocaust movie, with the possibility that we’re going to talk more and more about how awful animals were treated.
But nope, we don’t get that. We just get a bunch of people we don’t really care about, regardless of if they’re real or not, played by people who have been far, far better before. For instance, this is the first time in awhile that I’ve seen a bad performance from Jessica Chastain and it all comes down to her accent. It’s a European-accent that, for obvious reason, sounds different from everybody else’s here because she’s the only American in it. Everyone else is working with actual, born-and-bred accents; they may have to speak English to appeal to American-audiences, but you can still hear the authenticity in their accents. You can’t in Chastain’s and it’s what makes her character sometimes look and feel like a parody.
Same goes for Brühl’s Heck who, once again, is another Nazi who may have nice intentions, but ultimately, gets swallowed up by pride and greed. It’s the character that Brühl can play to perfection by now, but for some reason, he’s just boring here and it’s not entirely his fault. He’s clearly the villain here, however, the movie attempts to make him sympathetic in some ways, but never makes it clear why he should be viewed as a somewhat nice figure. Is it because he sort of loves animals? Jessica Chastain? Or, is it just because he doesn’t go out of his way to kill every Jew he sees?
I’m not sure, really. And the movie isn’t, either.
Consensus: The Zookeeper’s Wife is a typical Holocaust-drama that never settles in on what it wants to be about, and therefore, feels typical, conventional, and above all else, unimportant, despite the obvious importance of the true tale it tells.
2.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Focus Features