Release date: 21st April 2017/Watch the trailer here
The Zookeeper’s Wife is inspired by the true story of Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who used their zoo in Warsaw to rescue and shelter more than three hundred people who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto following the German invasion.
It might seem puzzling that a World War II film focusing on the Holocaust, based on a critically acclaimed book and starring an Academy Award-nominated actress, is being released in April and not towards the end of the year instead, when we can usually expect to see an influx of such typical ‘Oscar bait’ films. However, upon seeing The Zookeeper’s Wife, it becomes all too clear why it has been hidden away in a month filled with forgettable releases.
The first downfall of The Zookeeper’s Wife lies in its struggle to settle on a consistent tone: one minute, Antonina is cuddling adorable lion cubs and happily feeding apples to elephants, and the next minute, those same animals are dying in bombings and being shot by German soldiers. The film continues to seesaw between the schmaltzy and the tragic throughout the rest of its runtime, the horrors of the Holocaust only ever being lightly touched upon before it’s back to Antonina, more often than not clutching something small, cute and fluffy. She makes for an amicable enough heroine (Chastain’s distracting attempt at a Polish accent notwithstanding) and there’s no denying the amazing feats that this incredible woman accomplished, but she’s ultimately held back by Angela Workman’s clumsy script. It’s not just Antonina that suffers at Workman’s hands, either – Daniel Brühl as ‘Hitler’s head zoologist’ Lutz Heck (Brühl is now destined to be typecast as Nazi characters for the rest of his career) goes from friendly, helpful elephant wrangler to cartoonish villain in seemingly no time at all.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its high points, but even its best moments are hampered by a frustrating amount of fastidious tastefulness; never does The Zookeeper’s Wife feel painful or difficult to watch – and for a Holocaust film, that’s surely a rather sizeable flaw. Instead, it’s careful to make it crystal clear to its audience when they’re supposed to feel happy and when they’re meant to feel sad – yet they’re never given the opportunity to feel shocked or appalled at one of the very worst chapters in the history of humanity.
It’s all just very, very average – there’s nothing so overtly wrong with it to call it ‘bad’, but it’s quite a long way from ‘good’, too. The fascinating story of the Żabińskis is certainly one that deserved to be told on the big screen, but it’s a pity that The Zookeeper’s Wife failed to tell it as well as such an undeniably powerful story truly deserved.