The Zookeeper’s Wife: Remarkable True WWII Story Gets Moving Adaptation
Had it not been based on true events, the story behind The Zookeeper’s Wife would have been almost too hard to believe. Based on the non-fiction book written by Diane Ackerman, the film recounts the incredible bravery of one Polish woman who, along with her husband, helped shelter hundreds of Jews from the Nazis during WWII in their abandoned zoo.
The year is 1939 and the story introduces us to Jan (Heldenbergh) and Antonia Zabinska (Chastain doing what she does best); a married couple who devote all of their love and time to running their art-nouveau zoo situated in Warsaw, Poland. Their eccentric home, which they also share with their son, Ryszard (Radford), is also located on the promises and it’s clear from the film’s opening sequence – where the audience gets to witness Antonia’s daily ritual which mainly portrays her love and devotion to the animals she cares for – that they live relatively affluent and happy lives.
All this changes when Germany invades Poland with the Zabinskis’ zoo – along with most of their animals – getting abolished in the process. The rounding up of Jews also soon begins whilst their zoo, according to the assessment from Hitler’s head zoologist, Lutz Heck (played by Inglorious Bastards’ very own Daniel Bruhl) is left to be liquidated for the war effort. Unable to sit back and do nothing about the atrocities that surround them, the Zabinski’s soon convince Heck to let them convert what’s left of the zoo into a pig farm to provide food for the troops. Using their newly-found business as a cover-up, the couple soon begins to hide Jews on their premises as well as finding ways to transport them out of the ghettos, risking all of their lives in the process.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a solid and a harrowing tale of bravery which is only now getting its very own big-screen outing. The production value is high and the Kiwi director, along with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, fills with the screen with striking visuals and uses their power to propel the story along. However, although both the director and screenwriter Angela Workman manage to find plenty of ways to convey the anguish, heartache and pure terror that transpired throughout the couple’s incredible and extremely risky journey, they do seem to have trouble in sustaining the momentum.
Failing to rise above the lethargic pace which the film falls into in its second half, the story, at times, feels like a TV movie instead of a high-value Hollywood release, while the writing also fails to fully flesh-out its characters, lazily overlooking the need for a stronger emotional engagement.
However, with that said, Chastain’s performance – despite her questionable Polish accent and weak dialogue – is truly riveting and the Oscar-nominated actress shines every time she appears on screen. The rest of the cast also contribute to providing the gravitas and the much-needed weight that makes The Zookeeper’s Wife a story worth telling and a spectacle worth seeing.