THE STORY – The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski. The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
THE CAST – Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton & Daniel Brühl
THE TEAM – Niki Caro (Director) & Angela Workman (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
By Josh W.
”The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an elegant, well told period piece that seems to be lacking some substance. Despite some glorious production design and cinematography, the film falls a bit flat. Jessica Chastain delivers a career-defining performance that deserves to land among some of the greatest period piece performances. All in all, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is rather one note, with amazing performances and visuals but a usual story and an all too familiar setting.
Telling the story of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), two zookeepers during the World War 2 era. The husband and wife duo decide that they have more than enough space to attempt to be a safe home for Jewish people during the war. Taking in person after person, the Zabinski’s risk it in all in order to save some lives of the Jewish people. With a simple set up and heart throbbing story, the film still manages to fall short in its execution.
The film does deserve quite a bit of credit, however. Proving to be quite an accurate adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s novel, the film follows the book almost beat for beat. While seamlessly transitioning Ackerman’s brilliant character development and interactions, the film is a little lackluster on the storytelling itself. Feeling incredibly similar to other fantastic World War II dramas such as “Schindler’s List” or “Inglorious Basterds”, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” brings absolutely nothing new to the table. Even though this type of story has been told time and time again, it still is heartfelt and passionate.
Capitalizing on the amount of emotional weight that these kinds of stories carry, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” will pull at your heartstrings from the first ten minutes, up until the last ten minutes. One thing that “The Zookeeper’s Wife” executes better than most period pieces is making us sincerely care about the characters. Not only the Zabinski’s but also for every Jewish character that they attempt to save. We feel the true tension that the Zabinski’s encounter while avoiding the suspicious Nazi party from start to finish. With flawless character development and an even better-executed character interaction, the film does not shy away from being a tear jerking experience. A large portion of this melancholic experience comes from the immaculate performance given by Jessica Chastain.
Chastain has been leaving audiences in shock for several years now. From science fiction films, to period pieces, and even the occasional action film, Chastain has mastered every plane of filmmaking. Yet in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” she channels something that we have not seen before not only in her career but in the category of period piece acting. Standing on the shoulders of giants such as Liam Neeson, Christoph Waltz, Ben Kingsley, Humphrey Bogart, the list goes on, and on, and on. Chastain definitely deserves to be in the premature talks of the Best Actress category for the academy awards of 2017.
Even though Chastain clearly carries almost the entirety of the film, there are still a few other actors that do shine on screen. Fresh actor Johan Heldenbergh delivers an also well developed, emotionally passionate performance. Daniel Bruhl steps into a well-deserved spotlight as well. Every character in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is perfectly cast and each actor gives an overwhelming performance.
Another small note that deserves to be discussed is the elegant visual style that the film brings to the table. Not only with beautiful cinematography but also just an overall stylish production, the filmmakers flawlessly re-create the World War II era. From how the ghetto in Germany is designed, to the distraught look of the Zabinski’s zoo/home it is obvious that the filmmakers took their time to accurately portray not only the time period but the chaotic nature of risking everything to save the lives of the Jewish people.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a passionate and elegant film, that lacks substance. With a story that seems to have been told before, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is still a fantastic telling of the World War II time period. With flawless visuals and production design, and an overwhelming performance from every actor involved but a specifically earth-shattering performance from Jessica Chastain. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” has all of the elements for a great period piece, and despite a few hiccups it still is a heartbreaking and beautiful film.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Great production values are led with spectacular performances from Chastain, Bruhl and the rest of the ensemble
THE BAD – The story is something we all but too familiar with