NEW YORK (CNS) — Moviegoers of goodwill may ask themselves, while watching the fact-based historical drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Focus), why they aren’t enjoying themselves more. The story the film tells is undeniably inspiring. But the manner in which it’s told is dramatically thin.
That’s certainly not the fault of Jessica Chastain, who brings brio to her portrayal of the spouse of the title, Antonina Zabinski. Together with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), Russian-born Antonina enjoys an idyllic life in Poland peacefully presiding over the Warsaw Zoo where her unusual affinity for animals proves a valuable asset.
All that changes Sept. 1, 1939, with the Wehrmacht pouring across the Germany-Poland border, and the Luftwaffe raining down bombs from the sky. What remains of the devastated zoo is eventually put under the supervision of Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinskis’ counterpart in Berlin — a colleague and acquaintance before the outbreak of war.
Powerless to save many of the animals in their care, the Zabinskis turn to rescuing people. They begin on a small scale by sheltering Magda (Efrat Dor), a close Jewish friend who — along with her husband, Maurycy (Iddo Goldberg), also an old pal — is about to be confined in the now-infamous Warsaw Ghetto.
The Zabinskis ratchet up their defiance of the Nazis by developing a clever scheme to gain Jan access to the ghetto. He uses this entree to smuggle out groups of its oppressed residents, hiding them in the zoo’s underground network of cages until the resistance can arrange their escape from the country.
Chastain forcefully conveys her character’s appealing personality, while Bruhl maintains the ambiguity of Heck’s persona, part ruthless army officer, part humane man of science. But, in adapting Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction best-seller, director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman fall short of a compelling narrative.
In deciding whether “The Zookeeper’s Wife” makes suitable fare for older teens, parents will have to weigh the uplifting nature of the tale — having helped more than 300 potential victims of the Holocaust, the Zabinskis were eventually declared “righteous among the nations” — against some of the grim incidents it depicts.
These include the off-screen sexual assault by a group of soldiers on Urszula (Shira Haas), a young Jewish girl, as well as the possibility that committed wife and mother Antonina may have to submit to Heck’s adulterous advances. Additionally, the Zabinskis’ son, Ryszard — played first by Timothy Radford, later by Val Maloku — finds himself imperiled by his parents’ secret activities.
Honorable but hardly riveting, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” feels as though it might have made a better documentary than dramatization.
The film contains considerable combat and other violence, a couple of marital bedroom scenes, a glimpse of upper female nudity and mature themes, including gang rape and adultery. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103