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'The Zookeeper's Wife' Plays It Too Safe & Sentimental For Its Tough Subject

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 30, 2017 4:27PM

Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper’s Wife." (Photo courtesy of Focus Features.)

The Zookeeper's Wife is firmly in the Schindler's List school of Holocaust dramas, telling a true and important story, but with enough of a "good cry" factor to make the horrors of war go down just a touch easier.

That sounds harsh, and I don't want to dismiss the movie—or Schindler's List for that matter—as pure sentimentality. There is value in sharing this story in a mass-appeal fashion. Ongoing and potential genocides around the globe and a new wave of aggressive nationalism at home and abroad make any reminder of how quickly fascism grew in the era of Nazi Germany welcome. As it has been said many times and bears repeating, we must never forget.

And The Zookeeper's Wife is not, by any means, a bad movie... just a very safe one. Its real-life protagonists, Antonina and Jan Żabiński, were true heroes. But the movie paints them in such broad strokes of nobility, and with so few personality traits beyond that nobility, that they seem more saintly than human. Aside from Jan showing a bit of understandable jealousy at one point, they seem virtually flawless.

Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, and per the film's title, the story is told mostly through her eyes. A Russian-born Pole with a tremendous knowledge about and empathy for animals, she works with her husband Jan, director of the Warsaw Zoo. It seems a blissful life until Germany's invasion of Poland in September of 1939.

The zoo is decimated during the invasion and the Żabińskis' hopes of rebuilding and restocking the animal population are dashed when German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of Rush and Inglourious Basterds), previously a mainly benevolent overlord, becomes a Nazi official and orders the zoo closed.

The Żabińskis strike a bargain with Heck that is actually their leap into the resistance. They agree to use the zoo grounds as a pig farm, providing meat for German troops, but the operation is really a cover for the hiding of Polish Jews in their home. Heck's amorous attention toward Antonina complicates the charade.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) makes the zoo all but glow in its pre-invasion state. With Antonina riding her bike around the grounds while a young camel gallops behind her, the opening scenes teeter on fairytale imagery. Naturally, the look of the film becomes a lot less glamorous as Jewish citizens are confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, violated and killed, or shipped off to the doom of concentration camps.

The Zookeeper's Wife has some strong scenes in both its dark and sunny portions, but the clocklike-precision turning points of Angela Workman's screenplay play out in overly familiar beats. The story is true, but Workman's writing makes it feel formulaic.

Chastain is a terrific actress with a great track record, but she comes up a little short this time. I don't know how technically accurate her Russian-Polish accent is, but her delivery seems strained... or maybe it's simply hampered by Workman's generic dialogue. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh fares better as Jan, especially in the scenes in the ghetto where he expertly conveys both shock at the savagery around him and the extreme anxiety of his rescue missions.

Because the heroes are granted so little complexity, the villain steals the show. Brühl makes Heck's vanity and cruelty obvious, but doesn't overplay those traits. You can see the humanity underneath the uniform.

You would have to be pretty coldhearted not to be moved by some scenes, including a stirring reunion between two of the Żabińskis' closest friends. The problem however is that even when The Zookeeper's Wife does prompt you to tear up, you start to fear it's at the cost of a real reckoning of the Holocaust.

Which brings us back to Schindler's List. For all its well-researched, disturbing depictions of wartime atrocities, the film's famous "I could have done more" speech finally provides a huge emotional release for the audience. Roman Polanski's The Pianist took a different path: a rough survivalist's tale with a touch of hardened irony. Both are movies of quality, but Polanski (whose mother died at Auschwitz) was less inclined to soothe his viewers after confronting them with a depiction of mankind at its worst.

The Zookeeper's Wife, like Schindler's List, is a story of non-Jews who rescued Jews at a time when they were being marked for extinction. Those stories should be celebrated. But moviemakers might better serve this vital subject matter with more focus on the Jewish people themselves and perhaps less determination to take it easy on the audience.

The Zookeeper's Wife. Directed by Niki Caro. Screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from a book by Diane Ackerman. Starring Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Brühl. 126 mins. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday in theaters nationwide. Advance screenings Thursday at select theaters.