The Zookeeper's Wife review: needs more bravery and less cuteness

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Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife
Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife

Dir: Niki Caro; Starring: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl, Johan Heldenbergh, Shira Haas, Timothy Radford, Val Maloku. 12A cert, 127 mins

“Maybe that’s why I love animals so much,” muses Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife, while a baby rabbit nuzzles affectionately into her lap. “You look in their eyes and know exactly what’s in their hearts.” Chastain’s character – the title role in this based-in-fact Holocaust drama – is drawing a comparison with the rise of the Third Reich, and ‘bunnies good, Nazis bad’ is about as morally sophisticated as the film is prepared to get. 

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), The Zookeeper’s Wife retells in broad and weepy strokes the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who during the Nazi occupation of Poland harboured 300 Jews in the abandoned enclosures and underground storerooms of the Warsaw Zoo.

It’s a handsomely presented tale that dependably strums at your heartstrings: Holocaust plus animals is a formula that will do that. But there’s something glib, and occasionally maddening, about the film’s use of loveable fauna in peril to sentimentalise and sweeten what is, after all, an account of real human bravery in the face of an endlessly horrifying historical event.

Let’s just say that the fact only one Jewish character – a traumatised teenage girl played by Shira Haas – is allowed to make more of an impression than a wacky dromedary doesn’t sit well in retrospect.

Chastain does her best to bring depth and intensity to what the line quoted above should indicate is a desperately earnest and overwritten script, which was adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book about the Zabinksis by Angela Workman. She also plays Antonina with a chewy Polish accent which – highly unusually for this committed and conscientious actress – remains too foregrounded in her performance to ever really convince. 

The Flemish actor Johan Heldenberg gives a respectful if not overly detailed performance as Antonina's husband Jan: in keeping with the film’s title, his own considerable heroism isn’t the focus. The villain of the piece, played with businesslike menace by Daniel Brühl, is Lutz Heck, Hitler’s head zoologist – another genuine historical figure, albeit one whose job title sounds oddly comedic when shoehorned into dialogue as clumsily as it is here. After Warsaw is captured by the Nazi forces, Heck’s plan is to extract the zoo’s prize specimens to Berlin for selective breeding, Antonina included.

The invasion itself makes for the film’s most startling and memorable sequence by far, as the animals, freed from their enclosures by the preliminary bombing, scatter through the city’s smouldering streets. Caro and her cinematographer Andrij Parekh maximise the surreal potency of these images: a shot of a tiger cautiously snuffling at rubble is like an Henri Rousseau canvas gone to hell.

But the film’s inability to capture the plights of its human victims in comparably arresting terms leave its priorities feeling, at best, naively jumbled.