Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction tale The Zookeeper’s Wife was published in 2007, became a bestseller in 2008 and was immediately seized upon by Hollywood because there simply aren’t enough movies about World War II these days.
Nevertheless, Jessica Chastain became involved, signed on as star and executive producer and surely approved of filmmaker Niki Caro, and the results mostly work well, even if it’s a drama set in Poland, filmed in the Czech Republic, featuring a California-born name actor putting on an accent alongside all sorts of English-speaking European players, and directed by a New Zealander.
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica) and her husband Jan (the Flemish Johan Heldenbergh) are shown running the popular Warsaw Zoo in 1939. The early scenes here are sweet, with appearances by very photogenic elephants, monkeys, play-fighting lion cubs, baby lynxes, an affectionate skunk, a stalking tiger and a young camel that roams free (while this claims that no FX were used with the animals, you do have to wonder about those last two critters). It’s all very Eden-like and it can’t last long, and when the Germans invade, this paradise is devastated, with many of Antonina’s beloved beasts killed by bombs, or that most cinematic of villains, the gun-happy, heartless Nazi.
As they try to rebuild, the couple are increasingly disturbed by the treatment of Jews in the community. When their friends are forced into the Warsaw Ghetto (some of the best if most shocking moments arrive here), Jan convinces Antonina that they have no option but to do something. That something? To “host guests” in the empty cages and tunnels, a dangerous plan as the Nazis are using the place for an armory and German zookeeper Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl – who else?) is sniffing about, although his suspicions about Antonina keep being thwarted by her coming onto him.
Although Angela Workman’s script somewhat too often emphasises soapiness (as Jan gets jealous when he sees Antonina and Lutz making eyes at each other beside the bison pen) in favour of striking facts (Antonina and Jan carried cyanide capsules on them at all times to ensure a quick exit if they were ever found out), this is still worth persevering with. And what about Chastain’s put-on Polish accent? Is it as bad as some sources state? Well no, and if it occasionally seems slightly strained, that isn’t a problem as she can actually act.
Rated M. The Zookeeper’s Wife is in cinemas now