The Zookeeper’s Wife review: Walking a sugary thin line

Diane Ackerman's moving Holocaust true story is let down by fluffy bunnies - and Jessica Chastain’s accent

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife: Chastain’s Polish accent is perfectly serviceable, but it does nothing to distract from the creakiness of the enterprise

Film Title: The Zookeeper's Wife

Director: Niki Caro

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 127 min

Thu, Apr 20, 2017, 16:44

   

Not every film concerning the Holocaust needs to exhibit ruthless documentary integrity. But there is an invisible line beyond which prettification risks triggering offence. Though a professional operation stuffed with fine actors, Niki Caro’s adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book stumbles over that border with deadening regularity.

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true – and genuinely moving – story of Antonina Zabinski, who, with her husband Jan, helped save hundreds of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. The couple, who ran the city’s zoo, smuggled their charges out under heaps of pig-feed and then sheltered them beneath the cages until an escape route presented itself.

Warning klaxons sound as we open with a shot of Antonina, in the welcome form of Jessica Chastain, curling up with compliant lion cubs while golden sunlight bathes the doomed city. Then she opens her mouth. The convention whereby actors speak in broken English while delivering dialogue translated from another language seemed dated 30 years ago. Chastain’s Polish accent is perfectly serviceable, but it does nothing to distract from the creakiness of the enterprise.

Worse still are the cosmetically distressed depictions of the ghetto. Caro seems to have taken her visual cues from the pictures of crying children they used to sell in Woolworths. They look cutely sad. The look a little less sad and even cuter when allowed to cradle a baby rabbit.

The film is even more sentimental in its treatment of the animals. You will see no more shameless attempt to push emotional buttons than the sequence that finds Chastain comforting a brave elephant while the creature frets over a recently delivered calf.

“You look into their eyes and you know exactly what’s in their hearts,” she says of her charges. What is really in your heart, little marmoset? Hullo, clouds. Hullo, sky.

As uneasy, sugary fantasies go, The Zookeeper’s Wife is pretty well carried off. Harry Gregson-Williams’s music is nice. Daniel Brühl is slippery as the head Nazi. Our own Michael McElhatton (also in this week’s Handsome Devil) is robust as the Zabinskis’ chief keeper. But the professionalism is in the service of a film that lacks guts.