Based entirely on real events, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is yet another example of just how many remarkable untold stories there are from the Second World War. Every year we’re treated to pieces of cinema that depict new perspectives, new heroes, names we shouldn’t ever forget, that deserve prosperity – something this art-form can provide. That’s certainly the case for the Zabinski’s – it’s just a shame their incredible bravery has been depicted in such a generic, uninspiring manner.
Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) run the zoo in Warsaw, peacefully, and sufficiently – until Hitler invades Poland. Caring so greatly for their animals, they soon have to start thinking of their own safety and survival, particularly when Nazi Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) shows such a great interest in their organisation, promising to provide a safer home for their animals in his Berlin Zoo, in exchange to use their land as something of a military base. You would think this would deter the couple from assisting their Jewish friends and neighbours, but it doesn’t – as they seek to secretly shelter hundreds of displaced Jews in their home across the course of the war.
You would think, given the narrative, that suspense would be a prevalent sensation within this movie, and yet the film comes devoid of any real tension. That’s not to say it’s not vied for, it’s just simply not achieved. It’s here where this title should come into its element, with the Nazis patrolling in the now abandoned, desolate zoo – and yet here is this couple, providing a home to those who would otherwise be on their way to a concentration camp, right under the noses of the antagonists, and we barely feel anxious. Hardly an enjoyable feeling, granted, but surely a prerequisite for a film of this nature. It doesn’t do Bruhl’s performance justice either, for he plays the villain in such an accomplished way, as he so often does. Given he’s one of the most renowned German actors working today, he’s had to play antagonists of this nature before, and while an actor with great range, it’s here he truly comes into his element.
Naturally, however, Chastain steals the show – as the polar opposite to Bruhl, instead displaying such affability and tenderness, as she so often does. The only problem is that the film struggles to give her enough to do, in spite of the fact she seems to appear in almost every scene (the title hasn’t even given her a name, for starters). But it’s a performance worthy of a better cinematic endeavour, and one that is hindered by its inclination to be presented in the English language, not getting natural enough performances from either those speaking in their second language, or those having to put on an accent. But that being said, as it’s such a profound, inspiring tale – if this is what it takes to allow for more accessibility and a greater, mainstream release, then so be it.