The Zookeeper's Wife (2017) (Review)

Based on the true story from Diane Ackerman's international bestseller, The Zookeeper's Wife details the life of Warsaw Zoo keepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski, a husband and wife duo who attempted to rescue as many Jews from the Nazi invasion of Poland during the Second World War as possible. Jessica Chastain stars in the titular role of the war drama directed by Niki Caro, telling a story of bravery and kindness in the midst of a politically-dangerous backdrop. If that sounds relevant, it is because we can all learn from the actions of the Zookeepers at the heart of this story - it's just a shame that final package is not a little bit more sturdy and assured.

After a shock aerial bombardment of Warsaw as German forces storm Poland on September 1, 1939, the Warsaw Zoo is all but destroyed, with many animals (and humans) killed in the process. Despite the severe repercussions they would face if caught, Antonina (Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) decide to secretly open their gates to the Jewish refugees enslaved in the ghettos and eventually the concentration camps, in an attempt to save as many as possible from the Nazi's barbarism. At a grave risk, they demonstrate the kindness of strangers and bravery of those seeking to do right in the world, helping to save as many as 300 'guests' from hardship, torture and/or death.

The Zookeeper's Wife is as well-intentioned as they come, offering a heartening and life-affirming insight into two recipients of the Polish 'Righteous among the Nations' award. The emotion captured in the film is palpable from beginning to end, with a number of scenes serving a genuine sentiment  and crafting a deep respect towards the Zabinski's and their selfless work. It is nigh-on impossible not to be moved, or even close to tears, at various points peppered throughout the film. As mentioned, the film delves into some timely themes, examining selflessness, kindliness and goodwill in a way we can all learn from, beautifully bringing this story to our attentions. It's not the only example of bravery demonstrated by others during the war and it certainly (hopefully) won't be the last - but it is no less inspiring and uplifting to see unfold on screen, telling it in a slightly lighter way than is typical (although, I will speak more on that later...). Caro does a wonderful job directing this piece, highlighting both the beauty of the zoo and the bleakness of the ghettos, aided by some stunning cinematography from Andrij Parekh. Caro brilliantly conveys the claustrophobia of the cages and the ghettos for the Jews at first, which is later reflected around the Zabinski's as the grow closer and closer to being caught, with a selection of technical skills - such as tighter frames and angles - to represent this. It's really smart film-making and these detailed little flourishes make her a very promising director - it's worth keeping an eye on Caro and I'll be interested to see where she decides to go next. All of these great elements are bolstered with gorgeous set-pieces and costume designs, with the usage of real animals in the film a lovely, stirring addition alongside Harry Gregson-Williams' poignant score.

Chastain finds a confident footing as Antonina after a slightly shaky performance to begin with, ultimately delivering another stellar performance to add to her resume. She does an excellent job in portraying the fundamental goodness of her character, humanising the inspirational figure with thanks to Angela Workman's adaptation of Ackerman's novel and, of course, the influential lady herself. Single-handedly responsible for the majority of film's emotion, she prevents the character from ever feeling one-dimensional, despite the overwhelming goodness she radiates. In one instance, Mrs Zabinski speaks of her ability to understand the animals she tends through by looking through their eyes and seeing their hearts, a notion reflected through the character herself; the character is humanised so beautiful and we can see that very feeling represented through Chastain's detailed and nuanced performance. It is really impressive work and she rightly owns the picture and her place above the title. The rest of the cast (admittedly good but relegated to supporting turns in Chastain's presence) are made up of Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl, Michael EcElhatton and Val Maloku, who handle their material efficiently; that said, the clear focus is on Chastain's Zabinski and the picture benefit from this focused vantage point. Workman's script adaptation is largely a success, gaining from its facts-based approach that results in a relatively accurate biopic. It's noble that Workman manages to scale down the six years-plus timeframe into the film, even if it concludes in a picture that is far too long...

The Zookeeper's Wife biggest Achilles' heel though is the exhaustive runtime, one that threatens to take the wheels off entirely. It handles the transition from the second to third act rather poorly, struggling to maintain the sense of urgency found in the first act and for the majority of the second. Setting up for the finale feels like a rushed job, as if the team suddenly remembered they have got to wrap it up somehow and stumble around trying to unite everything in time. A trim of around 20 to 25 minutes would greatly benefit this film, which really begins to drag its feet approaching the final half an hour. Unfortunately too, The Zookeeper's Wife exists in the same space and sub-genre as Schindler's List, a groundbreaking and iconic film that tells a similar story in a far more substantial way. It rarely considers the full horrors of war, displaying a rather sanitised version of the story with a marked interest in showing cute animals than the ghettos and the general terror of war. It appears very glossy and picture perfect, leading to an awkward tonal clash when we move into the ghetto and begin to see (very brief) glimpses of the horror. Furthermore, while they indisputable are, the stakes never feel high enough because of how 'clean' the film is presented, as well as to how closely the film sticks to the 'saviour' narrative. We have two tales being told here - the Zookeepers and their strive to open their doors to Jews and the refugees' plight, which is rarely considered as profoundly as hoped outside its constraints to the first plot - never blending all that effectively, all told.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a well-intentioned, sweetly-made examination of kindness and determination, right when the world needs a nudge in that direction. It is certainly not without its issues, mainly the struggle in pacing and transition from the second to the third act, as well as a facing a slight tonal inconsistency that really settles. What it otherwise lacks though, it makes up for with handsome production values and Jessica Chastain's empathetic and moving performance, helmed by the directorial talents of Niki Caro. It is almost as if two films are playing out throughout The Zookeeper's Wife and although both are satisfying, they don't always gel in a sophisticated enough manner to be a fully-fledged success. It is engrossing when it moves at a brisk pace and refreshingly quiet and vulnerable - certainly more so than you would expect. It still remains weight and moving though, powering past its flaws to deliver a generally satisfying picture.


Summary: The Zookeeper's Wife is a well-intentioned and handsome adaptation of a story worth telling and despite a terrific central performance from Jessica Chastain, its brought down by an overly sanitised approach to its facts-based tale and its unnecessarily long runtime.