PLOT During World War II, the Warsaw Zoo becomes a hiding place for persecuted Jews.
CAST Jessica Chastain, Daniel Brühl, Johan Heldenbergh
RATED PG-13 (violence, sexuality)
BOTTOM LINE An engrossing if somewhat glossy drama based on a real-life heroine.
The Warsaw Zoo becomes a human sanctuary in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a World War II drama based on Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book. Starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinska, whose unpublished diaries provided the book’s basis, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is a thoroughly Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust: well-intentioned, sensitive and just a little too pretty.
That could describe Chastain in this role as well. She opens the film riding a bicycle, her summer dress aflutter, through the zoo that Antonina runs with her husband, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). Antonina’s chorus of “good mornings” to her beloved tigers and elephants — with Adam the camel trotting doggedly behind — is meant to convey the bliss of life before wartime, but the Disney-esque tone suggests that the going will get only so tough in this movie.
After Hitler invades Poland in 1939, Antonina’s friend and colleague at the Berlin zoo, Lutz Heck (an excellent Daniel Brühl), adapts quite nicely to the Nazi way. A scientist with creepy ideas about breeding — some involving Antonina — he commandeers her most prized animals and shoots the rest, leaving her zoo deathly quiet. As a result, it makes a perfect hiding place for a Jewish friend. Another follows, then another, adding up to roughly 300 by the war’s end. After Jan is taken prisoner during the Warsaw Uprising, Antonina becomes the sole caretaker for her human menagerie.
There’s no moral imperative that every Holocaust film immerse us in horror, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is too mild-mannered for its own good. Even when the script (by Angela Workman) ventures into tense or ugly territory, director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) maintains a high-gloss sheen. Chastain is never caught without her lipstick on and her hair just so. The character of Urszula (Shira Haas), a barely pubescent girl raped by German soldiers, is one of the few who seems truly stained by the savagery of war.
Nevertheless, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells a story that is true and important. In 1965, Israel recognized the Zabinskis as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor shared by Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and others.