The Culture Movies

'The Zookeeper's Wife' has a strong story but is unadventurous

The film stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski, a real-life figure who, along with her husband, ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II and managed to shelter 300 Polish Jews there.

Jessica Chastain stars in a scene from ‘The Zookeeper's Wife.’
Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features/AP
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( PG-13 )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

If the true story behind Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” were not so strong, the film would be even less compelling than it is. It’s a singularly unadventurous piece of filmmaking about Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II and managed to shelter 300 Polish Jews there, almost all of whom survived the Holocaust.

How this was managed is truly inspiring, but the way it plays out in Angela Workman’s script (adapted from Diane Ackerman's bestseller) is strictly by the numbers. Antonina is righteously earnest, even when she endures being pawed by chief Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl); the Jewish hideaways are for the most part undifferentiated sufferers; and prize animals are slaughtered on cue. This story is powerful enough without our being heavily coaxed all the time how to feel. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity, and smoking.) 

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