The Zookeeper’s Wife: A movie review by James Berardinelli

May 2, 2017 by James Berardinelli - Reelviews
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Not every movie about the Holocaust is expected to be on the same high level as Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, but (especially when the source material is factual) more is expected than the familiar melodrama and faux tension delivered by Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife.

A partially fictionalised account of the experiences of Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenberg), the husband-and-wife couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War 2, the film tries to tug at the heart-strings and uplift, but rarely succeeds at either. The problem isn’t the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman around which the narrative has been constructed, but a series of “added” scenes and subplots that seem lifted from a bad B movie and have the unintended consequence of devaluing the story as a whole.

The Zabinskis’ story is worthy of a motion picture – just not this motion picture. The script falls prey to a laundry list of pitfalls. In trying to cram seven years’ worth of events (1939-1946) into two hours, the movie is never given an opportunity to pause to take its breath or properly develop the characters. Occasional lurches forward in time damage continuity (in one scene, Antonina is suddenly about to give birth while in the previous scene she wasn’t even pregnant) and some of the characters’ actions (such as Antonina’s bizarre visit to a Nazi official’s office) don’t make any sense. The need to have a strong villain results in one being created, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who comes directly from Nazi central casting. And there are all sorts of clichés about what happens when Jewish refugees are being hidden in cellars and attics.

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