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Even with Strong Performances, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” Fails to Compel

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 30th, 2017

Film poster: “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

The Zookeeper’s Wife (Niki Caro, 2017) 1½ out of 4 stars

Based on the 2007 best-selling non-fiction book of the same title (by Diane Ackerman), The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story about the Holocaust that mistakes treacle for seriousness, bathos for pathos. It is not without significant strengths – namely, the central performances – but fails to distinguish itself from the plethora of previous films on the same theme. Like The Book Thief, which offered a similar take on the topic, with similar weaknesses, it unintentionally trivializes the horrors it recounts through excess sentiment. If it were a pop tune, it would be of the easy-listening variety, where the occasionally mean guitar riff only emphasizes the lack of grit.

By this point in cinematic history, we have had so many profound treatments of the subject that the bar is set high for any new movie. The beauty of films such as Son of Saul, The Counterfeiters and Aimee & Jaguar, made over the past two decades, is how they developed fresh approaches, avoiding genocide-fatigue via innovative storytelling angles and techniques. Director Niki Caro, who has done such fine work before in films like Whale Rider, North Country and McFarland, USA (which breathed new life into the heretofore tired cliché of the coach movie), cannot escape the ceaseless platitudes of the script (written by Angela Workman, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), and though she has strong actors whom she guides well, the net result is dramatically inert. Simply setting a movie in the Warsaw ghetto is not enough, today, to make it meaningful.

Jessica Chastain in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

That said, there are moments of acute heartbreak that stir the soul. We are in a Polish zoo, overrun by Nazis as the Germans invade. One of their first tasks is to massacre the animals, many of whom we have come to know in the preceding scenes. As the titular character, Jessica Chastain (Crimson Peak) makes us feel both her love for her charges and pain at their loss. As her husband, Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) is a worthy partner, a man initially reluctant to help the local Jews who quickly becomes a hero, spiriting them away from the ghetto to the now-empty zoo, then arranging for transportation to safer locales. Together, they make a strong team, he performing the more immediately dangerous tasks while she distracts the Nazis-in-residence, the leader of whom, Daniel Brühl (Rush) – in a one-dimensional part as the villain – has a not-so-secret crush on her. Based on a true story, how could it fail to inspire? And therein lies the rub. Facts alone do not compelling drama make. When the most moving scenes in a Holocaust drama are when the animals are shot, you have a problem.

Johan Heldenbergh in “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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