Review: Chastain gives ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ its life

Powerful WWII story runs on the power of Jessica Chastain’s moving performance

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” Jessica Chastain gives the sort of fierce, affecting performance you’ve come to expect out of her in recent years. She’s a radiant ball of fire, hurtling to Earth. But as in December’s “Miss Sloane,” the rest of the film can’t measure up to her.

Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, who helped transform the Warsaw Zoo into a sanctuary for Jews during Germany’s invasion of Poland during World War II. It’s quite a stunning metaphor — Jews are kept in cages and in subterranean hideouts — and it’s powerful as hell all by itself.

But director Niki Caro has too light of a touch, and her film is too restrained when it comes to the emotional and thematic weight of the material. Many times filmmakers go overboard when dealing with inherently sensitive subject matter, but here, Caro goes underboard.

Perhaps it’s the PG-13 rating, but it feels sanitized, and that translates to its emotional resonance. This is not a PG-13 story — Zabinski is also fighting off the increasingly intense advances of German officer Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, doing “Inglourious Basterds” again) — and to try to tell it in such a clean, uncompromising way is damaging.

Still, this is a handsomely shot, weighty story, and Chastain is a knockout in the lead. Johan Heldenbergh also stands out as Zabinski’s husband, Jan, and the scenes where he sneaks refugees out of the ghetto in trucks filled with food for his pigs are rife with the kind of tension you expect from these stories.

But is it enough? “The Zookeeper’s Wife” tells a noble story that deserves to be told, but it’s missing something: Namely, something as moving and captivating as its leading lady.



‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’


Rated PG-13: for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking

Running time: 126 minutes