The Zookeeper’s Wife is an extremely moving film that relies on two things to power its engine: a small piece of World War II history and a strong cast to follow through on a director’s promise. While the film runs a little too long and shows us parts of WWII history that have been unfortunately over-cooked in our minds, it makes you feel and has a resounding impact.
This is the second film to reveal a powerful perspective of World War II in the past month on St. Louis movie screens, with the first being Land of Mine. While that particular film carried the tension of The Hurt Locker, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a mixture of drama and thriller that will lure a larger audience in. Namely, the part of the story that centers on animals.
The Warsaw Zoo is open to civilians in Poland today, but back in 1939, it was the scene of the German invasion at the full blown tilt of the second World War. Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabanski’s (Johan Hederbergh) popular zoo is partially destroyed and occupied by German soldiers, which sets the family on a different path: the preservation of Jews hiding out.
Director Niki Caro’s film is based off a true story taken from the international best selling novel of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which was adapted by Angela Workman. The setup of the story is key, because the film opens up with a whimsical look at the everyday operation of the Zoo and its keepers. Antonina getting up with her twin tigers sprawled out on the master bed with her son next to them. She opens the gates, rides her bike around feeding the animals, and rescues a baby elephant after a dinner party where she was mockingly referred to as “the Zookeeper’s wife”.
When the war breaks out, Jan starts to quietly house some of the Jews who weren’t captured or murdered, and the scenes depicting the evasion of German forces carry a tension that is a quarter cup tension and three quarters familiar. While it is influential to the story, some of the drama outside the Zoo is taut yet redundant.
Daniel Bruhl shows off a familiar filter as the well meaning yet secretly devious German operative/zoologist who takes an interest in the animals and Chastain’s Antonina, which produces a familiar plot sequence, but is carried out well by the actors.
While Chastain does well in the role and carries the bulk of the movie on her shoulders, the supporting cast fares better and leaves a bigger mark. I hadn’t seen Hederbergh in much before his heartbreaking role here as the patriarch who bites off a little more than he can chew in trying to do right by everyone, including his family. Bruhl is very effective, and Michael McElhatton puts in strong work as Jerzyk, one of the zookeepers who plays a part in many of the plot threads.
Harry Gregson-Williams conducted the score for many Tony Scott films, and takes a page from Thomas Newman’s book here with a restrained score that knows when to kick it up a notch. Suzie Davies’ production design keeps the wartorn locale (filmed in Prague) from resembling a movie set, while Andrij Parekh’s cinematography is nothing special. The film editing needed a boost, because David Coulson lets at least three to four scenes run extra long.
While familiar and over two hours, The Zookeeper’s Wife carries a powerful spell of historical conviction; the idea that the number of perspectives from a terrible war are still out there waiting to be told and told right. This movie will have an impact and is worth seeing for the execution of the story from the cast.
If you don’t feel something when you leave the theater, check your pulse, because you may be dead inside.
(First published on ksdknews.com)