In a role that would have without question been automatically awarded to Nicole Kidman just a decade ago, the less stony faced Jessica Chastain whelms as Antonina Żabiński in The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro. This Schindler’s List/We Bought A Zoo mash-up for the ages is a well styled package stacked full of nightmare fuel: It is a bonanza of animal butchery, sexual assault, and general dehumanization, to different degrees of graphic representation. The film is based on Diane Ackermanthe’s book of the same name, which recounts real historical events.
I have not read it, but it’s got all of the hallmarks of what is probably a fair to middling adaptation, if you’re a fan of the book. There are certain tells of page to screen adaptations, and in a lot of ways this feels like a book, considering that the visual lingering on period and place elements hang like descriptive overtures. The flipside here is that this film version of The Zookeeper’s Wife is prone to certain pitfalls, certain pacing issues, certain editing issues that emerge because of the formal aspects of cinema. So, it suffers in a lot of the ways typical of such adaptations – they can often bloat or meander in trying to chase down authenticity. This one seems to prefer to spin several plates of narrative, leaving no plot thread unannounced and at the same time underserved. It’s hard to tell what beats or through line of storytelling it is attempting to hit, as it indulgently wrings out every last drop of wretched morbidity from each scene. With awfulness abounding, it often gets awfully hard to tell which awfulness we should be feeling most awful about.
The plot is simple – the Warsaw Zoo and its family of zookeepers are commandeered by the Third Reich. Directly under the noses of those gooses steppin fascists, the zookeepers use their zoo as a waystation for Jewish refugees escaping certain death in concentration camps. Jessica Chastain is the eponymous zookeeper’s wife who is the glue that keeps the zoo, and the refugee operation, together, enduring no shortage of trials along the way. The plot is a season’s worth of material for an HBO or Netflix series, and as the movie fails to unpack all of its effectively dramatic moments, it glazes over its own messages.
Daniel Bruhl is a doughy faced and ineffective villain who manages to somehow drain the menace from a nazi uniform. I want to like him because he was in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, but then I remembered he was just as doughy faced and ineffective in that movie too. And in what ends up being only a marginally better performance than Nicole Kidman would have delivered, Chastain’s execution of the role doesn’t exactly sit right – I am generally a fan of her, but here she sounds so focused on bringing a bona fide polish accent that the emotional affect in her voice seems hindered. That’s just it – for all of its WWII period perfection, it’s authentic accents, its emoting of human (and animal) misery – all of its fussiness – The Zookeeper’s Wife has accuracy, and verisimilitude – and suffers because of it.
The Zookeeper’s Wife has cinematic instincts, but it won’t be able to fend for itself in the wild.