It’s tough to judge a film based off of a true-life account of a terrible event. I maintain here to judge it as a film foremost, with the real heroism of the figures involved being incidental to our discussion of the film at large. And where does The Zookeeper’s Wife rank? Decent, but no Schindler’s List-style Oscars heading this way I feel.
The Holocaust film genre is one that, dare I say it, is a gift that keeps on giving to filmmakers these days. The tropes are well known and the drama is already culturally known, so you just pick your angle and head for the hills with your box office takings. There were moments that I thought the script for this film must have just had brackets that said “general Nazi evilness takes place here for 5 minutes.”
What I mean is that it seems like we’re telling the same story over and over, and each time it loses its impact. The Zookeeper’s Wife’s best moments are when it can contribute something new to the events we know so well, which it does do well enough at points.
The film is based on the story of Antonina Zabinski (Chastain), the wife of the owner of the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina and her husband Jan were famous for, at great risk to themselves, using their commandeered zoo as cover to help Jews escape from Nazi occupied Poland. As many as 300 Jews were saved in this way during World War II, a remarkable feat worth of commemoration, and I suppose this film does it as well as any other method. Rounding up the cast is villain Lutz Heck, a zookeeper from Berlin with made Nazi fanaticism and an unhealthy interest in Antonina.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is at its best when showing the various ways that the Zabinski’s managed to smuggle Jews in and out of the zoo and disguise them. Many of these methods are seemingly laughable, but the fact is they worked in real life for the most part. The film is also especially strong in the first act, where the normality of the average life in the zoo is explored, and we begin to sense the danger of what is to come, first from the animals.
Chastain is normally marvellous in everything she is in, and I have a real soft spot for her, however, here she struggled a bit with her Polish accent and it really affected our ability to connect with her. Just do what all films have done for the last 70 years and give them British English accents, we would barely notice. However, she still managed to get across the idea of this being the story of the titular Zookeeper’s Wife. Her husband Jan is off doing all kinds of manly things, but the story remains focused clearly on her and her struggles during this time.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on a memoir by the real Antonina that I have yet to read. I may yet do so at some stage. However, this film did not really impact my life to any memorable degree. I’m glad we had heroes like the Zabinskis in real life, but as a film subject, I feel this well is supremely tapped dry with this particular focus.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is, ultimately, very average.