Following the recent, tragic terrorist attack in Stockholm, there was a picture shared around on social media of one of the victims; Iggy the dog. It’s rare we contemplate the animals who unwittingly get caught up in warfare, whose lives are no less important. It’s this unique perspective which initially makes Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife appear so intriguing, as we watch on as a zoo gets targeted during the Second World War – but regrettably its not a notion explored in any depth, eventually taking on the form of a by-the-numbers drama, that while telling a fascinating story, does so in an all too generic fashion.
Jessica Chastain plays the titular protagonist Antonina Zabinski, who peacefully co-runs a zoo alongside her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) in the heart of Warsaw – until WW2 breaks out. As bombs fall from the sky the safety of the animals is no longer guaranteed, and so the couple agree to allow Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) look after them at the Berlin Zoo – until the war is over. In the meantime, his intrusive presence begins to unnerve the couple as they fear his nefarious intentions. They have reason to fear too – for the pair start sheltering Jews in their basement, beginning with friends, and eventually stretching to whoever they can – right under the noses of the patrolling Nazis.
Presented in the English language, though completely appreciating the need for accessibility to help bring this tale to a broad audience around the world – The Zookeeper’s Wife suffers, unsurprisingly, by having a cast made up primarily of actors using their second language, and for those who that doesn’t apply to – they’re still having to put on an accent. That being said, Chastain is as wonderful as ever, with such a warmth and tenderness to her demeanour, something the actress so often possesses, and yet isn’t tied down to when it comes to roles – particularly evident in her performance in Miss Sloane, where she cuts a colder, more flawed figure. Bruhl is just as creepy and uncomfortable as one would hope to see from the film’s chief Nazi antagonist, as another actor who can move between hero and villain with ease – though tends to thrive more so in the latter, as is evident here.
And yet in spite of the incessant Nazi presence, and the fact our protagonists are hiding several Jews in their home, the film somehow comes devoid of suspense, which should be the film’s most prominent theme, and yet isn’t nearly as prevalent enough. It is poignant, however, in how parallels are subtly drawn between the Jews and the zoo animals, both caged and transported – it’s just a shame the film doesn’t play up to this sentiment more and try and find a unique strand in an otherwise popular cinematic stomping ground. Given how many war-set dramas are released yearly, you need something a little different to stand out from the crowd, and regrettably this film fails to do so.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is released on April 21st.