Friday, September 15, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)

Film: The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl, Michael McElhatton
Director: Niki Caro
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

If you've read this blog for a while (and why shouldn't you-it's a very sporadic delight!), you might have realized that there are few things that hold truer in terms of filmic opinions than I don't particularly like true stories.  Yes, truth can occasionally be stranger than fiction (look, for example, at the moron running the country), but by-and-large truth isn't as strange as fiction.  For example, in real life you can quite easily know who will emerge victorious in a war or that in order for a story of history to be told, someone had to have lived through it to tell it.  This is a problem at the center of the recent picture The Zookeeper's Wife, based on the bestselling book by Diane Ackerman (as well as the largely forgotten real-life story).

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is about Antonina Zabinska (Chestain), a Polish woman who runs the Warsaw Zoo with her husband Jan (Heldenbergh).  Antonina adores her animals, oftentimes romanticizing them in a way that may raise eyebrows to animal right's advocates (I include myself there, and I will admit that the sequences where she cradles a baby lion made me deeply uncomfortable).  After the attacks by the Germans, her zoo is destroyed (the strangest scene of the movie as this clearly happened in real life, and you don't think about how for a brief moment lions and tigers roamed the streets of major cities), and an opportunistic Nazi named Lutz Heck (Bruhl) convinces her to give him her most prized beasts, and then she is stunned when he starts shooting the rest of the animals, as he has become less interested in saving animals and now more interested in making Antonina his mistress.

The film's story takes a turn for the more traditional when it comes to WWII epics, as the Zabinska's start to use the cages and the intricate underground systems of the zoo to tunnel Jews from the work camps and out of Poland.  In total, we learn in the credits that over 300 people were saved by the Zabinskas during the war.  Filmically, we now what's going to happen of course-they are nearly found out, and then at the end of the war Heck and the Germans try to destroy the Zabinskas and the Jews that are still being harbored by them, but thankfully to no avail.  The film ends with Jan Zabinska, who had been shot during the Warsaw Uprising, being reunited with his wife in their zoo, which still stands today.

True stories, as I said above, can be captivating-this story is a remarkable one, and well worth the time investment if you want to pour through Ackerman's book but as a film it doesn't work.  Chastain seems so detached, far more focused on landing her Polish accent than finding something within her Antonina, and Bruhl is giving a pretty misguided performance as Heck, never giving him any layers other than lust and evil.  Both have been better, and honestly I don't recall either ever being this bland.  The movie goes exactly how you would expect, and while (again) it's a story that probably deserves to be told, Ackerman already did that and it doesn't translate well in cinema, as it comes across as dry and slow.  Overall, aside from some occasionally interesting sequences early in the picture involving the animals, you'd be better off skipping this and just going with the book.

Those are my thoughts on The Zookeeper's Wife, but if you've seen it-how about you?  Anyone want to jump to its defense, or is everyone more a fan of the novel?  What other recent films have failed where their books succeeded?  And what'd you think of Chastain's/Bruhl's performance?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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