The first time I ever heard about Niki Caro, it was in relation to a film that told a tale of deep familial bonds, and the way those bonds were forged by the flora and fauna around them. WHALE RIDER, her 2002 debut, was a gorgeous tale of challenging a system, taking care of those closest to you, and communing with the natural world. Fifteen years later, Caro is still telling beautiful stories of family surrounded by all creatures great and small…now in the form of THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE.
This film takes us to the Warsaw Zoo in 1939. The park is run by Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh), with Antonina especially taking a hands-on approach with the menagerie that provide them their livelihood.When we first meet the couple, they are drawn into the bragging and hunting tales of a German named Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Heck makes a pass at Antonina, she rebukes him, he slinks away with a sneer.
Mere months later, Warsaw is hammered by The Blitzkrieg. The zoo takes a particular pounding, with many species getting sprung and spooked. As the Zabinskis try to sift through the rubble and adjust to the new world order, Heck strides back into town – now an SS officer. He pilfers most of the animals that remain, suggesting that he is actually doing the couple a favour. In lieu of running a tourist attraction, the Zabinskis make ends meet by using the zoo to farm pigs.
At least, that’s what they tell The Nazis.
In truth, they are using the sprawling property – especially the massive villa at its centre – to shepherd and shelter Jews away from The Warsaw Ghetto, and from The Nazis’ clutches. Months turn into years, and the couple need to become increasingly clever with every passing decree and heightened alert.
Through it all, the Zabinskis – and Antonina in particular – remain steadfast and give dozens of lives a fighting chance. Dozens of human and animal lives.
It should surprise nobody that the beating heart of this film is Jessica Chastain. She is many things at many moments – a shining example of the adaptability required during such surreal times. It’s not just about being strong (though she was), or allowing herself moments of humanity (though she did)…it’s understanding which side of one’s self will do the most good at any one moment.
Chastain has a way of steeling her resolve. For instance, she shows a glimmer of disgust with quickened gestures or pursed lips. It allows her a quick release valve to keep from reacting with complete shock – a move that could get her killed. This is an approach I wager many women in her position would take, but Chastain has an amazing talent for finding the sweet spot on-screen. She raises her cards just enough to show the audience she’s bluffing, while the other players at the table think she’s holding a straight flush.
Watching the way this family comes together – and all invited into the zoo are family – that inspires, They risk so much to counter a great evil, get creative with their tactics, and use every trick in the book to preserve life. Perhaps that comes from the mental disposition of working with animals…of not always being able to say “Let me help you” and needing to find ways to convince a potentially deadly creature to permit intervention. All who work at this zoo must understand this, so it makes sense that all who are invited would benefit…and learn to employ it themselves.
The trouble with THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE resides in the story it is trying to tell, and other stories of similar ilk that have already been told. The incredible tale of Antonina and Jan Zabinski is detailed and sprawling. On the printed page, it has time to breathe and go off on many tangents. Books allow detailed exploration of incidents great and small over the span of years – the death of a drunk hedgehog can absolutely get equal attention as the near discovery of an attic full of hiding Jews. Film doesn’t have that luxury. It needs to be a river winding through the valley, and this film often feels like a stone skipping across a pond.
What’s more, the film faces the difficult challenge of adding a story to a book that is full of stories. That’s not to state that there aren’t still stories to be told from WWII or The Holocaust, but only to suggest that telling one nowadays requires an increased amount of focus. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a good film; one that reminds us that war comes with atrocities that can get forgotten when the number of atrocities committed piles up. However, one gets the feeling it wanted to be a great film, and for that, much more focus was required.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE has moments of true horror and moments of true beauty…one just wishes there was a little more cohesion between moments to turn it into the complete tale those moments deserve.