PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — To fully engage the audience, a biodrama has to do more than just depend on our knowledge that the events depicted actually happened.
That helps for starters, but eventually the film itself must generate its own tension or suspense, or we might as well be reading a newspaper article about the events.
There is plenty of potentially affecting material in The Zookeeper’s Wife, and yet this period drama falls a bit short in impact and memorability.
Scripted by Angela Workman, it’s based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman that is based on the diary of the title character.
That’s Antonina Zabinski, played by Jessica Chastain, a sensitive, compassionate veterinarian and the wife of Jan Zabinski. Together, they’re the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo.
The story that unfolds describes the way the Zaninskis saved hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion of 1939, when many of the animals were killed in the bombing.
They managed to keep the zoo in operation for the duration of the war, while saving over 300 Jews from the Holocaust.
Daniel Bruhl plays Hitler’s head zoologist, Nazi head of the Berlin Zoo, who takes the best of the zoo’s breeds to Berlin, while the remainder of the animals are slaughtered by German soldiers.
Then the zoo is converted into a pig farm in order to feel the Nazi soldiers, and the Jews in the city are moved into a ghetto.
Meanwhile, the Zabinskis hide Jewish refugees in the zoo’s vacant basement cages and sneak them out via a garbage removal scheme.
Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, A Heavenly Vintage, McFarland USA) knows she has inherently dramatic material on her hands, so she tells her story in a relatively straightforward manner.
Unfortunately, far too much of it is unconvincing. We may buy the events unfolding as having happened, but it’s only because we know that going in, not because we believe that what we’re watching is authentic. Well-intentioned as the project might be, the ring of truth is missing.
And because seeing is not believing, we don’t get as caught up in what should be the urgent and suspenseful plight of the on-screen characters, human or animal, the way we should.
It’s just never as tense as it ought to be – and as we know that it must have been.
And sometimes it seems that the look of the film, handsome as it might be, is of more concern to the makers than what is happening in the narrative.
Perhaps that’s why there are what seem to be jump cuts and credibility lapses, as well as erratic pacing.
It’s probably unfair to even mention this, but because comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List, are inevitable, given the similarities in subject matter and narrative, let’s just say that we know that such sensitive material can be handled much more efficiently and effectively.
So we’ll hide 2 stars out of 4. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story worth telling that’s just not terribly well told.