It’s never a waste of time watching Jessica Chastain, even if the film she’s in isn’t great. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a perfect example: an earnest historical drama that never scales the emotional heights the real-life story would seem to promise. But Chastain is faultless as Antonina Żabiński, who with her husband Jan ran the Warsaw Zoo during the turbulent years of World War Two. Not only did the couple try to protect their animals from rapacious Nazi invaders; they found a way to shelter several hundred Jewish citizens.
Here is the stuff of great drama. Indeed, Żabiński’s diaries inspired a best-selling book by Diane Ackerman. But screenwriter Angela Workman and talented director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland U.S.A.) have somehow dropped the ball. Their film is never dull, but that’s not the kind of compliment I’d welcome if I were dramatizing this material.
Daniel Brühl, who’s made a strong impression in such films as Inglourious Basterds and Rush, scores again as a Nazi officer who shows mixed feelings about the Żabińskis and their precious zoo. His ambitions and motivations provide the film’s most intriguing subplot.
The environment of the zoo itself is equally interesting, when we first encounter it in peacetime and then see it and its inhabitants destroyed in a sequence of surreal images.
Despite Chastain’s grounded performance and persuasive Polish accent, The Zookeeper’s Wife never captures the urgency—and tragedy—inherent in its story, which takes place in a rarified world that exists alongside the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. The movie feels like a missed opportunity.