Given the setting and the title, you might think The Zookeeper’s Wife is about the impact of Nazi atrocities on non-human Polish residents.
That’s partially true, but this historical drama instead shines a spotlight on the story of how two Warsaw zookeepers sheltered hundreds of Jews during the height of World War II.
However, despite plenty of inherent drama, the film undermines the courageous efforts of its subjects with a treatment that feels embellished and melodramatic.
The title character is Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), the gregarious and compassionate animal lover whose husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), is overseeing the Warsaw Zoo when the Nazis invade Poland in 1939.
Their immediate reaction is to save as many animals as possible, which leads Antonina to negotiate a deal with Lutz (Daniel Bruhl), a German zookeeper whose promise to care for the animals winds up being deceptive. Lutz is essentially Hitler’s primary animal caretaker, and becomes a central figure in establishing the city’s Jewish ghetto during the war.
So the Zabinskis instead turn their attention to their own species, agreeing to hide Jews within the zoo buildings so they can avoid persecution. Of course, they do so at great personal risk, especially when Lutz becomes suspicious.
The film quickly dispenses of the amusing and adorable animal antics and yields some fine performances, especially from Chastain, who conveys a balance of strength and vulnerability largely through body language and facial expressions.
New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (Whale Rider) mostly avoids visually depicting sequences of military conflict in favor of character-driven moments behind the scenes. Such an approach, however, lacks subtlety in its attempts to tug at the heartstrings. At one point, the Nazis even shoot a bald eagle, for crying out loud.
Despite some intermittently powerful moments, the uneven screenplay by Angela Workman (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), based on a nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, indulges in heavy-handed contrivances that diminish the emotional impact of the material, especially considering the true-life heroism that inspired it.
Ultimately, The Zookeeper’s Wife lacks the grit and audacity of its protagonists, although the film might have the side benefit of prompting additional viewer research into the Zabinskis. On screen, their story feels caged.
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes.