Timing really can be everything. If we were talking about The Zookeeper’s Wife as recently as two years ago, it’d be easy to dismiss it as a well-made, well-acted, good-intentioned period drama that doesn’t really do much. But it’s 2017, and we’re living in a culture where white nationalism and actual Nazis are on the rise. Because of that, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels more like a warning now. That sense of urgency is good, and needed – but it doesn’t actually feel earned at this point.
The film follows Antonina Żabiński (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who run a zoo in 1930s Warsaw. When World War II comes to Poland, though, their zoo is largely disassembled, and Nazis largely commandeer the land. Jan is aware of the injustice the Nazis are bringing with them, and he and Antonina both begin to rescue and hide Jews.
Jessica Chastain is the major draw of the film, and she manages to flesh out Antonina a bit more than the script itself does. There’s a warmth and kindness in her performance that the script doesn’t provide on its own, and Chastain is able to keep the character restrained. But the film doesn’t really ever get into why it’s called The Zookeeper’s Wife, outside of the fact that she’s technically more prominent in screen time. Jan not only does more of the dangerous work to save the Jews, but he’s a bit more active as a character overall. Antonina isn’t necessarily passive, but the drive isn’t quite there for her either. The biggest source of conflict comes from the advances of the film’s lead Nazi (Daniel Brühl), and even that conflict isn’t all that engaging.
There’s also a slightly cringeworthy parallel that’s drawn from the film’s decision to show Jews being saved en masse. For the most part, they just move in and move through the film, without any notable qualities given to them. There is one young girl who bonds with Antonina, Urszula (Shira Haas), who gets a little more attention, but it’s mostly to show the abuse she suffers at the hands of the Nazis. Otherwise, the Jews move through the zoo under the care of the Żabińskis in a way that’s…similar to how they’re shown treating their animals. I don’t think the parallel was intentional, but it does exist now.
Ultimately, The Zookeeper’s Wife gets power from its release date more than for what it presents on screen. At least it can bring these issues to mind, but taken on its own as a film, it’s not all that powerful. There’s an emotional distance that’s in play for large portions that never really manages to close up.