The Zookeeper's Wife review: Bland film about epic rescue

Actress Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper's Wife, who shelters Jews in her zoo during World War II.
Actress Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski in The Zookeeper's Wife, who shelters Jews in her zoo during World War II.PHOTO: FOCUS FEATURES

REVIEW / DRAMA

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE (NC16)

126 minutes/Opens tomorrow/2.5/5 stars

The story: Based on true events, this drama set in World War II is centred on Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who own a zoo in Warsaw. When the Nazis invade Poland, the couple secretly shelter Jews within the zoo grounds.

A survival story set in the Holocaust, majestic animals, a lead performance by top actress Jessica Chastain - this work has all the makings of an Oscar-bait movie.

But under the direction of Niki Caro, who once made the far superior Whale Rider (2002), this film will unlikely be much of an awards contender.

The story is told in a shockingly bland fashion. There is hardly any tension throughout the film, not even when the Zabinskis land themselves in the most dangerous situations.

Time and again, the couple manage to get out of tight corners casually - it is as if their punishment, should they get caught by the Nazis, would be just a warning letter rather than death.

Indeed, the middle chunk of the film where they are seen housing the Jewish refugees feel perfunctory at best. 

Even the refugees themselves behave in too cavalier a fashion to ever appear afraid of the consequences. They play loud music and write their names all over the basement walls as if they have no care in the world.

The too-easy treatment of the story is a huge pity because this is an important and extraordinary story that deserves to be told.

What the Zabinskis did in real life was truly heroic, but their feat will hardly be remembered by this movie the way Oskar Schindler's is through Steven Spielberg's moving Schindler's List (1993).

The only scene that will stay with viewers is the one in which the German soldiers first storm the Zabinskis' zoo to take over the grounds.

To see lions, monkeys and elephants get shot down and run over by the Nazis is heartbreaking and startling.

If only Caro had managed to create the same kind of jolt with the human scenes as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Bland film about epic rescue'. Print Edition | Subscribe