Review: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Falls Short of Greatness

Victoria Stuewe ’20 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Movies Editor
When approaching the World War II genre, one would only guess that it will exhibit intense battle scenes full of action and violence. The Zookeeper’s Wife, however, goes against that preconceived notion. Director Niki Caro’s latest film instead focuses on a woman who saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, all in her and her husband’s zoo in Poland. Though there are many good ideas in the film, there are just not enough to balance out missteps.
The Zookeeper’s Wife showcases a type of story from World War II that many have probably never heard of. It’s an interesting contrast to the many war films that have been released about this time period. The film is about the Zabinski family who owns a zoo in Poland in 1939. Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), the titular character, is an animal lover and has a relationship with each of the animals. Her husband, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), accompanies her, working the business of the zoo. However, after Germany begins to invade, they are forced to have their animals shipped away for safety and to report everything they do to the Nazis’ chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). Despite this, the Zabinksis decide to hide Jewish families within their zoo from the Warsaw ghetto.

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper's Wife. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
The obvious star of the film is, of course, Jessica Chastain. Though at the beginning her performance might seem a little over the top, over time, she really shines in the most emotional and draining parts of the film. Her presence is superior and her gravitas is a wonder. She really took this role seriously and viewers can tell that she dedicated herself to this role and the animals in it.
However, Shira Haas, who plays a Jewish girl named Urszula, was the surprising scene-stealer. Her quiet nature really filled the screen and made each scene she was in even more emotional than expected. Urszula and Antonina create a mother-daughter type of relationship over time, making both emotional and tense, and each actress did an incredible job at expressing their great amount of pain because of the war. There is one scene that showcases this perfect in that, despite the fact that Urszula barely speaks, their agony fills the screen, as Antonina portrays a monologue that has speaks to both Urszula and the audience.
However, other than a few scenes, Urszula is not in the film as much as she could have been. The heart of the film, the true message, was about the safety of the Jewish people and the animals, and yet, the underlying, strange “relationship” between Antonina and Heck constantly takes up space from the potentially moving storyline. Instead, awkward and uncomfortable scenes ensue.
Efrat Dor, Jessica Chastain, Timothy Radford, Shira Haas, and Martha Issová in The Zookeeper's Wife. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
Efrat Dor, Jessica Chastain, Timothy Radford, Shira Haas, and Martha Issová in The Zookeeper’s Wife. Photo Credit: Focus Features.
Due to this, it’s almost as if there are two movies in one; however, the editing is still not up to par to create a cohesive story. It’s unbalanced and the tone does not fit throughout the movie. One minute the film discusses war, and the next there is a fight between Antonina and Jan. This causes the film to not have enough depth and may even cause confusion as to what the motive of the film is. Yes, it is depicting a true story, so it should, obviously, have all of the Zabinskis’ story in it. However, if the editing were more intricate, there could have been more a greater chance of success.
Though the performances are great at times, the uneven storytelling really takes away from the film. Due to the film’s story, it is reminiscent of Schindler’s List; however, it does not live up to the abundance of emotion that comes from Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. It was a great effort, just not enough to really push The Zookeeper’s Wife to greatness.
Overall Grade: B-
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