NEW YORK, March 31 — “Schindler’s List’ With Pets”: That’s my suggested alternate title for The Zookeeper’s Wife. This mild-mannered Holocaust film probably wasn’t conceived as family fare but is so timid and sanitised it almost feels safe for children.
Except for its scenes involving animals, this handsome, excessively fastidious screen adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 nonfiction best seller is a polite but pallid recycling of Holocaust movie tropes with epic pretensions. The book tells the true story of a Polish couple who rescued about 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust and sheltered them in their zoo.
What does it say that the most stirring scenes in a movie that avoids graphic depictions of Nazi barbarism involve the heroic title character, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain), lovingly interacting with the animals in the Warsaw Zoo, which she runs with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh)?
In these tender moments, The Zookeeper’s Wife, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), from an anaemic screenplay by Angela Workman, shucks off its modesty and transforms into the sentimental portrait of a beautiful woman and the animals she cares for like a devoted parent. You can trust animals, but not people, she declares.
Her beloved charges get more screen time than the Jews whose lives the couple saves and who mostly remain anonymous, their personal stories left untold. They creep out of hiding and convene like a ghostly family when Antonina signals them by playing the piano.
The most emotional scene has nothing to do with Nazis, Jews or the Holocaust. In this sure-fire set piece, which feels shoehorned into the film, Antonina saves the life of a baby elephant to which she administers CPR, risking being trampled by the adorable creature’s agitated mother. Otherwise, The Zookeeper’s Wife plays like a medium-gloss rerun of other more gripping depictions of Nazi evil and Jewish suffering.
It at least sustains a cool pictorial grandeur in its portrayal of the Nazi invasion of Poland as bombers sweep the skies and armoured tanks roll into Warsaw as the city erupts in panic, its peace and quiet shattered in one horrifying instant. As bombs rain on the zoo, the frightened, confused animals run wild in the streets, and amid the chaos an elephant is shot.
After the invasion, Antonina and Jan are greeted with unctuous cordiality by Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a suave Nazi zoologist who offers to transport the zoo’s most prized animals to Berlin for safekeeping. During their stay, he says, he plans to use them for selective breeding.
To keep the zoo from being closed, the quick-witted couple come up with the idea of converting it into a hog farm, which would produce meat to feed the German soldiers. The animals subsist on garbage retrieved from the Warsaw ghetto in daily truck runs. Jan’s plan is to smuggle Jews hidden under the refuse to the zoo, where they are secreted in the basement of the house occupied by the family, which includes their young son, Ryszard (played at different ages by Timothy Radford and Val Maloku).
There are ample opportunities for the movie to stir up fear each time the truck leaves the ghetto, but the film has little appetite for cliffhanging suspense. The fugitives who emerge from under the garbage don’t look much the worse for wear. Although not without moments of terror and desperation, the screenplay’s leisurely timing subverts their dramatic impact.
A subplot involves Antonina’s precarious balancing act as she charms the besotted Lutz, and resists surrendering to his increasingly aggressive moves as her jealous husband watches nervously from a distance. The screenplay is so frightened of this material that it isn’t always clear whether she has succumbed. But as Lutz evolves from a charmer into a bad, bad Nazi, the question of did she or didn’t she give in seems a feeble attempt to pump romantic excitement into a drama in dire need of moral complexity.
Chastain’s watchful, layered performance helps keep the film on an even keel, but it is not enough to prevent The Zookeeper’s Wife, with its reassuringly cuddly critters, from feeling like a Disney version of the Holocaust. — The New York Times