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"THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE"
(2017) (Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A married couple that runs a Warsaw zoo uses that to hide Jews being persecuted by WWII Nazis.
PLOT:
It's 1939 and Jan (JOHAN HELDENBERGH) and Antonina Zabinska (JESSICA CHASTAIN) run a zoo in Warsaw, Poland where their love for the animals is evident for all to see. It hasn't escaped the notice of Lutz Heck (DANIEL BRUHL) who runs the zoo in Berlin and tells others worried about German military aggression that he's a zoologist and not a politician. Not long after that and a German bombing run that heavily damages the facility and kills many animals, however, Lutz (now an SS officer) informs the couple that their zoo is to be liquidated, but that he'll transfer their most prized animals to the Berlin zoo.

To keep the facility open, Jan and Antonina propose to him that the zoo be used as a pig farm, and Lutz agrees, especially since he's decided to use the zoo in his attempts to bring back and breed aurochs that have been extinct for several hundred years. With German military forces now occupying Warsaw, the couple and their son Ryszard (TIMOTHY RADFORD as the younger boy, VAL MALOKU as the older boy) try to go about their lives, but are horrified to see the Nazis rounding up Jews, including their friend Maurycy Fraenkel (IDDO GOLDBERG), and forcing them into a fenced-in ghetto.

Despite the inherent dangers of doing so, the couple decides to hide another Jewish friend, Magda Gross (EFRAT DOR), in their house and then expands that by smuggling out children and adults inside their zoo truck they're using to remove refuse from the ghetto to feed the pigs at the zoo. Among them is young Urszula (SHIRA HAAS) who was sexually assaulted by two German soldiers and is now suffering from PTSD. As the war rages on and Lutz starts making moves on Antonia, the couple do what they can to smuggle out as many Jews as possible from the ghetto and hide them in their house and zoo.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Last year when reviewing Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated "Hacksaw Ridge," I made note of the fact that despite being one of the most documented and important events in human history along with the passage of more than a half a century, it was remarkable that such tales of mass heroism in WWII had escaped me and most others.

Granted, I'm sure there were hundreds if not thousands of untold examples of people doing heroic things during the war, but when such efforts saved scores of people, as was the case with Desmond Doss saving 75 souls during a horrific onslaught on Okinawa, you'd think such efforts would have been better publicized and subsequently remembered.

Of course, not all such acts of heroism occurred on the battlefield, with probably the most famous being that of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. I had never heard of him before Steven Spielberg's terrific but incredibly sobering "Schindler's List."

Likewise, I had never heard of Jan and Antonina Zabinska who did something similar albeit by different means during the German military occupation of Warsaw, Poland. The married Christian couple, who ran the city zoo, ultimately saved 300 or so Jews from the ghetto -- and likely later death -- by smuggling them out of the fenced-in section of the city and to their zoo and house on those grounds.

Their remarkable tale was first brought to the mass public's attention via Diane Ackerman's 2007 novel "The Zookeeper's Wife," and now again in the dramatic film of the same name. It's a solidly told tale, with a good performance (as to be expected) from Jessica Chastain and handsome production values (mainly courtesy of the set and production design, along with the lensing provided by cinematographer Andrij Parekh).

Yet, even with that, the remarkable true story and the built-in villains, empathetic victims and heroes who could be risking their own necks to save the lives of others, the film never rises above languid mediocrity. Part of that stems from the direction by Niki Caro (probably best known for her 2002 film "Whale Rider") that feels more by the books and in the realm of a made for TV movie rather than what one has come to expect from a major theatrical release. There are moments of peril and certainly all sorts of war and Holocaust-related material, but they're presented in something of a textbook approach that robs the film of its emotional core.

And some of that is likely due to the approach screenwriter Angela Workman took with adapting the source material (that I have not read) and particularly in not fleshing out the characters enough to give them depth and thus engage the viewer. We know Chastain's character is a caring soul (as evidenced by saving the life of a newborn elephant and watching in horror as the Nazis kill her beloved animals) and had trauma in her past (she briefly tells the tale of her father's murder when she was just a girl), but we never really know her. But she's much deeper than her husband (Johan Heldenbergh) whose emotional state is pretty much reduced to reaction shots of what he's witnessing and some jealous moments when he thinks there might be something scandalous occurring between his wife and the local SS officer (played by Daniel Bruhl).

The latter is, for the most part, not much more than a stereotype of a Nazi who initially seems to be disinterested in politics but then has either a quick change of heart or revelation of his true colors into mostly passive malevolence, the type of which has been portrayed in countless movies. A few other characters are present (Tim Radford and Val Maloku as the couple's son at different ages, Shira Haas as a young rape victim, Efrat Dor and Iddo Goldberg as Jews the family helps hide, etc.) but aren't much more than props to move the story along and hit key script points.

None of which is meant to imply the film is bad as it's nowhere near that. But it pales considerably to the likes of "Schindler's List" in terms of direction, storytelling, and characters, or the harrowing aspects of the likes of "The Pianist" (also set in the Warsaw ghetto). As it unfolds, you watch and appreciate the effort, but unless you're personally and historically connected to the true events, you're not likely to be as engaged as you probably could and should have been. And the real-life couple and the heroic risks they took deserves better than that. "The Zookeeper's Wife" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 27, 2017 / Posted March 31, 2017


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