Movie News & Reviews

‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ comes in like a lion and out like a sloth

Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain) shared her love for animals, and mankind. During World War II, she ran a covert operation in which Jews were smuggled out of the ghetto, into her zoo and then transported to safety. The story is told in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
Antonina Zabinski (played by Jessica Chastain) shared her love for animals, and mankind. During World War II, she ran a covert operation in which Jews were smuggled out of the ghetto, into her zoo and then transported to safety. The story is told in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Focus Features

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” — destined to be recalled as the-movie-where-Jessica-Chastain-hugs-all-the-cute-baby-animals — is based on a marvelous true story of heroism.

So why does it feel so flat-footed and indifferent, so drained of blood and emotion? How come almost nothing clicks?

Maybe it’s a case of going to the well one too many times. We’ve seen enough Holocaust-themed movies in recent years that it takes something really special to get our attention. And this adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction best-seller from screenwriter Angela Workman and director Niki Caro is almost unbearably conventional.

In pre-war Warsaw, Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), operate the local zoo. It’s a pretty idyllic life. Every morning, Antonina hops on her bicycle and pedals around the grounds, calling out good mornings to the various animals. She’s followed by a gangly young camel that views her as an adoptive mother.

But war comes to Poland, and parts of the zoo are flattened by Nazi bombs. Pretty soon, the place is overrun with Germans, including zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who operates the Berlin Zoo and offers to take the Zabinskis’ prime breeding stock to a safe place. Oh, yeah … Heck has a crush on Antonina. That will create problems down the road.

The Zabinskis and their young son watch in dismay as Warsaw’s Jews — including some of their friends — are rounded up and confined to an overcrowded, filthy ghetto. They come up with a daring plan.

They offer to turn the zoo into a breeding center for pigs. The German army needs fresh meat, right?

At the same time, Antonina and Jan will allow their home to serve as a way station for Jews on the run. The Germans will never think to look for the fugitives right under their noses.

As that description suggests, the story has all the makings of an efficient thriller. Yet “The Zookeeper’s Wife” never comes to life.

For starters, the performances are underwhelming. Oh, Chastain is certainly movie-star watchable, but throughout she does battle with a Polish accent that keeps us at arm’s length.

As her husband, Heldenbergh, is, well, blah. The guy may be a freedom fighter, but that doesn’t make him interesting.

Only Bruhl, as the Nazi heavy, seems at ease with his character.

Caro, who with “Whale Rider” and “North Country” has a couple of feminist mini-masterpieces under her belt, seems to have been cowed by the prospect of mounting a big historical drama filled with life-and-death moments. Her approach is so cautious, so safe, so reverential that the whole movie feels freeze-dried, captured in amber.

But, hey, if you’re in the market for cute baby animals, this is the film to see.

Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

Rated PG-13. Time: 2:04.

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