The Zookeepers Wife falls flat even with Jessica Chastain

THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE (Niki Caro). 124 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (March 31). See listing. Rating: NNThe Zookeepers Wife is.


THE ZOOKEEPERS WIFE (Niki Caro). 124 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (March 31). See listing. Rating: NN

The Zookeepers Wife is the first movie from Jessica Chastains production company, Freckle Films, and shes playing it a little safe. Which makes sense, I guess, but its still disappointing.

Based on Dianea Ackermans nonfiction book, The Zookeepers Wife is a functional but stiff historical drama about Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their Warsaw zoo to shelter and rescue hundreds of Polish Jews during the Second World War.

Angela Workmans screenplay draws some very simple moral lines: the Germans are cruel, the Poles are noble, the Jews are scared and grateful for any help. And while Chastain cant not be interesting as the inflexible Antonina, who figures out a way to resist the Nazi occupation while pretending to collaborate, shes clearly filling in the blanks of a character thats as flatly conceived as everything else in the picture.

Worse, shes working in a vacuum. Daniel Bruhl is on autopilot as a sneering Nazi with eyes on both the Zabinskis animals and Antonina herself, and Johan Heldenbergh whom you may have noticed as the sad-eyed writer and star of The Broken Circle Breakdown a few years back is woefully underused as Jan.

Director Niki Caro orchestrates Antoninas triumphant moments with the same inevitability she brought to her breakout hit, Whale Rider, but I wish shed been willing to use more of the edge she showed in her underrated follow-up, North Country. The Zookeepers Wife is a little too delicate, and that includes the way it handles what happens to some of the animals tastefully and just off-camera.

Its almost obscene that a film about the Holocaust should worry about the audiences sensitivity to on-screen violence, but there you go.

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