It’s an incredible true story, how a Polish couple sheltered Jews during WWII in their abandoned zoo in Warsaw. What a shame then, that in adapting the book by Diane Ackerman, screenwriter Angela Workman lets the dialogue run to the blandest of bromides. It’s fortunate that the stellar director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) rarely lets the action go slack, using striking visuals that express so much more than the clunky verbiage. And in Jessica Chastain, Caro finds an actress ready to use everything she’s got to bring the title role to life.
Though her Polish accent owes too much to Meryl Streep’s Eastern European lilt from Sophie’s Choice, Chastain is radiant as Antonina Zabinska, the wife of a zoopkeeper named Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). In the early scenes, before the hostilities, Caro’s camera follows Antonia’s morning ritual of riding her bicycle around the lovely art-nouveau zoo, feeding the animals and talking to them like a female Dr. Dolittle. Later, we watch her give CPR to a choking baby elephant with its mother ready to strike if anyone does her calf harm. Antonia’s respect for animal life is boundless; she even lets her young son sleep with lion cubs. The serpent in this Eden slithers in with the Nazis. Caro brings astonishing power to a bombing raid on the zoo that panics the animals, many of whom are later shot by German soldiers in scenes of devastating terror.
Oddly, it’s the humanism of Antonina and Jan, whose heroic efforts helped save nearly 300 Jews, that fails to emerge with equal force. Antonina admits it’s easier for her to trust animals. “You look in their eyes,” she says, “and you know exactly what is in their hearts.” The compassion of the Zabinskas is never in doubt. They risk their lives to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto in garbage trucks and hide them in the zoo’s underground tunnels and cages, all under the eyes of occupying soldiers.
When Hitler’s favorite zoologist, Lutz Heck (Inglourious Basterds‘ Daniel Brühl), comes sniffing around. Antonina submits to his flirtations to deflect his suspicions. Brühl brings complexity to the role until the script reduces him to villainous caricature. As a result, the tension that should drive The Zookeeper’s Wife ebbs away in boilerplate storytelling. What makes the film worthwhile, despite its flaws, are those scenes of human and animal desperation that encapsulate the horrors of war.