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Zookeeper's Wife, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Worthy story, unimpressive focus."
2 stars

"The Zookeeper’s Wife" is not quite the movie it looked like, thankfully, although that might not be saying too much. I was fearing "Holocaust rescue but with cute animals to offset the horror", and it falls well short of that. Unfortunately, it’s still something that seems sanitized enough that the moments where it does get properly ugly come off as something the filmmakers can’t handle.

The zookeeper’s wife of the title is Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain); in 1938, her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, although the friendly-seeming visit of Berlin naturalist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) is a telling preview of the forthcoming invasion. Soon, Warsaw’s Jewish residents are being relocated to the ghetto, and everyone knows worse is on the way. Antonina and Jan start out by hiding one of their best friends in the attic, but soon set a larger plan: They offer up the now-empty zoo as a pig farm, with the hogs fed by the ghetto’s garbage, with weekly collection runs a way to smuggle people out. Heck, now a senior SS officer in Warsaw, agrees to the farm, but also insists he use some of the park for his pet project, which means the refugees must keep very quiet lest the Nazi guards be alerted.

Put aside the “based upon actual events” tag, and this is a good set of characters for this sort of story, and we know that from the start: The opening shows how well the Zabinskis get along with everybody, even if Antonina is the more outgoing one, especially as their backgrounds get filled in. I don’t know how much of Zeck is real and how much was created for the story, but there’s something supremely perfect about him as the outwardly-benign Nazi; he’s introduced telling a story of conservation that involves shooting wild animals but raising their cubs in captivity, his special breeding project is a doomed and absurd exercise in eugenics, and his sense of entitlement doesn’t initially seem outsized. It’s a great foundation for this sort of story, so long as the filmmakers careful where they go with it.

That’s because, if you’re not very careful, then you basically wind up equating Jewish people with animals in this situation, as they escape the ghetto but wind up hiding out in pens full of straw underneath the zoo, with the gentile protagonists attending to them, and that’s probably not the message the filmmakers want to send. It’s obviously not what director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman (adapting Diane Ackerman’s book) are going for, but it’s a line of thinking that gets hard to avoid as animals are sent away or shot in a weird sort of surrogacy but the Jewish characters tend to have very passive parts to play, with even the ones who get a moment of focus tending to be sidelined when they’re not being used to show how good and heroic the Zabinskis are. Certainly, the Zabinskis are the main characters of this film, but making it all about them and the danger they face runs the risk of misrepresenting just who the victims were, even considering that they are residents of an invaded and occupied country.

This comes more from laziness than actual malice, but there is a lot about the movie that is sloppy or not well thought-out. Caro doesn’t handle the film skipping forward so that the whole war can be covered in two hours very well, so the switching of actors that play the Zabinski’s son Ryszard is jarring, although maybe not so much as what happens with one of the rescued kids - a traumatized featured player toward the beginning, she’s maybe a briefly-seen background character in the end, a detail in how, during the unseen months, Jan has joined a more active sort of resistance. Early scenes with the animals are shot with precision and flair, but many later sequences feel underdone in a way that makes the Nazi look incompetent rather than building the heroes up.

The cast, at least, handles their assignments pretty well. Johan Heldenbergh’s Jan, despite the title of the film, is really the heart of it. Heldenbergh’s stoic, sometimes dour zookeeper is the most active character both in terms of doing things to move the story forward and internal strife as he quickly moves from the pragmatic man trying to keep his head down to the one who takes increasing risks for what he believes is right; the actor even comes out of a sequence where Jan is jealous of the attention Heck is paying his wife looking all right. Daniel Bruhl does an admirable job of playing his Nazi as genuinely dangerous even if, when he’s given a close look, he’s sort of ridiculous - the kind of guy who, when push came to shove, decided that the traits that made him insufferable were his best features. Shia Haas is impressive as the brutalized girl Jan rescues during his first trip to the ghetto, and Val Maloku does a good job of building on what Timothy Radford started as Ryszard. They tend to fare better than Jessica Chastain, who is placed in the center of the movie but not given much that’s positive or active to do. She gets her big emotional moments and does all right by them, although it sometimes highlights that her Slavic accent comes of as thicker and more difficult to understand than all the Central European actors performing in English. It’s kind of unfair - Antonina is described as an immigrant in the film, so it makes sense she wouldn’t sound like the Poles around her - but the impression is of the famous American actor playing broad and steamrolling the international cast around her in an Oscar bid.

That’s the cynical way of looking at the film, but "The Zookeeper’s Wife" doesn’t necessarily discourage it. It's got a story worth telling, but seems designed to let the people in the audience feel like they could have done this, rather than really driving home what a brave, perilous thing sticking one's neck out like this was and is.

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originally posted: 04/06/17 09:42:17
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  31-Mar-2017 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Jul-2017


  DVD: 04-Jul-2017

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