The 400-Word Review: The Zookeeper's Wife
By Sean Collier
April 3, 2017
The historical drama The Zookeeper’s Wife is so well-acted, so beautifully shot and composed and such an inspirational (true) tale that it hardly matters whether or not it is, strictly speaking, a good film.
Under the direction of Niki Caro — who is responsible for a pair of underrated 2000s gems, Whale Rider and North Country — it is a tale told via determination, pain and the right amount of realism. And, as demonstrated on almost a quarterly basis, Jessica Chastain is incapable of turning in anything less than a heart-on-sleeve, perfect performance.
So yeah, it’s good, is what I’m saying — even if there are structural defects that are tough to ignore.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the nonfiction novel by Diane Ackerman, itself drawn from an unpublished diary by zookeeper Antonina Zabinska (Chastain). Along with her wife, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), Zabinska converted the family’s zoo in Poland into a waystation and hiding place for Jewish men, women and children fleeing the Warsaw ghetto. This necessitated a delicate ruse; to keep their property at all, the zoo also had to be converted into a pig farm to support the Nazi war effort, under the eye of German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, another sorely underrated performer).
It’s a story that defies much criticism, and one that deserves to be told in any medium available. And Caro’s guidance of the tale, adapted by Angela Workman and delicately shot by Andrij Parekh, is cautious and as elegant as possible.
Regrettably, though, it must be pointed out that it’s not a tale that lends itself well to film. Undoubtedly, sequences of escape and breathless suspense at close calls are rich grounds for cinema. Beyond that, though, The Zookeeper’s Wife struggles to find a through line, trying to forward a marriage-straining conflict between Antonina and Jan; Heck keeps advancing on Antonina, she can’t outright spurn him for obvious reasons, Jan somehow still finds cause to blame her for this.
It’s a flimsy device, but the plot is forced to hang on it. Plenty of steam is lost over the film’s final act, as well, as plot developments begin to fly without room to breathe (and in one key case, without explanation).
But why quibble? It is indeed a lovely film in spite of its structural deficiencies. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving tale told with grace. There are many worse things to watch.
My Rating: 7/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark