“THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE” My rating: C (Opens wide on March 28)
124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
“The Zookeeper’s wife” — destined to be recalled as the-movie-where-Jessica-Chastain-hugs-all-the-cute-baby-animals — is based on a marvelous true story of heroism.
So why does it feel so flat-footed and indifferent, so drained of blood and emotion? How come almost nothing clicks?
Maybe it’s a case of going to the well one too many times. We’ve seen enough Holocaust-themed movies in recent years that it takes something really special to get our attention. And this adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction bestseller from screenwriter Angela Workman and director Niki Caro is almost unbearably conventional.
In pre-war Warsaw, Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) operate the local zoo. It’s a pretty idyllic life…every morning Antonina hops on her bicycle and pedals around the grounds, calling out good mornings to the various animals. She’s followed by a gangly young camel that views her as an adoptive mother.
But war comes to Poland and parts of the zoo are flattened by Nazi bombs. Pretty soon the place is overrun with Germans, including zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), who operates the Berlin Zoo and offers to take the Zabinskis’ prime breeding stock to a safe place. Oh, yeah…Heck has a crush on Antonina. That will create problems down the road.
The Zabinskis and their young son watch in dismay as Warsaw’s Jews — including some of their friends — are rounded up and confined to an overcrowded, filthy ghetto. They come up with a daring plan.
They offer to turn the zoo into a breeding center for pigs. The German army needs fresh meat, right?
At the same time, Antonina and Jan will allow their home to serve as a way station for Jews on the run. The Germans will never think to look for the fugitives right under their noses.