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When it comes to the long history of Holocaust films, there are so many that it's hard for the newer ones to stand out. Luckily, The Zookeeper's Wife doesn't have much of a problem in that area, as the film focuses on a more nurturing aspect of World War II, via the story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski. However, that's not enough to make director Niki Caro's film an outstanding entry in the genre, as the film straddles a line between sterile and visceral. Though that doesn't stop the film from taking the occasional opportunity to shine through its limitations.
Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) Zabinski are the proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo, an institution that brought joy to all who visited, but eventually became a vital lifeline to countless Jewish citizens in the Nazi ghettos instituted after being annexed during World War II. With the chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) sacking their farm to breed only the strongest animals of the pact, the Zabinskis secretly take part in the Polish resistance, while putting on a public face for Heck and the soldiers that occupy their homeland. If they're not careful, their lives and livelihood will be lost.
The biggest problem with The Zookeeper's Wife is that it portrays the horrors of the Holocaust in such a manner that they don't seem that horrific. While there's no shortage of tear-jerking prompts for the audience to follow, moments such as public executions and the slaughter of various zoo animals, the way they are portrayed on screen is extremely safe and PG-13. If the imagery was framed a bit differently, perhaps The Zookeeper's Wife might fit its MPAA rating better, but the way the film stands now, it looks like a network TV version of a harsher film.
Speaking of visuals, The Zookeeper's Wife does have an eye for visual detail, as it is an absolutely gorgeous film to behold. The imagery of both idyllic and hellish Warsaw is still quite stunning, despite the restraint that the film exercises in. It also helps that the cast of The Zookeeper's Wife compliments such gorgeous visuals with a powerhouse cast, lead by the always inimitable Jessica Chastain in the role of Antonina Zabinska. Her portrayal of the real life figure who helped shepherd so many Polish Jews through an underground railroad is a powerful, yet vulnerable figure that helps capture the tone of the film.
Jessica Chastain's interactions with both Johan Heldenbergh's Jan and Daniel Bruhl's Lutz draw the best out of her equally impressive co-stars, and the drama between these three characters sets the tone for the better pieces of The Zookeeper's Wife. The contrast between Lutz's Aryan ideology and Jan's efforts fighting with the Polish Resistance come to a head in every move that Antonina makes, and Chastain uses that public/private divide to give the film's material some much-needed depth.
It's not that The Zookeeper's Wife is a bad film, so much as it's a wasted opportunity. With the heart of the film lying in the non-violent efforts of Antonina Zabinski and her struggle to do the right thing, it might have been better to scale back on the horrors of the war and go with even more restrained depictions of the violence and atrocities the Nazis committed. A family movie might have been born. Instead, the harsher moments of The Zookeeper's Wife act like morsels from a standard World War II epic, weighing down the toned down sections of the film all the more.