The Zookeeper's Wife, C+
Rated PG-13, 127 minutes
The well-acted but heavily romanticized drama "The Zookeeper's Wife" is based on real events of World War II. To some degree, it's essentially a less-interesting version of "Schindler's List" set in a zoo, but there are still some powerful moments in the fact-based film.
The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of Antonina Zabinski ("Zero Dark Thirty's" Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, excellent here). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan's stewardship and Antonina's care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich's newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl of "Rush" and "The Bourne Ultimatum"). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.
Based on Diane Ackerman's 2007 non-fiction novel of the same name, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is directed by "Whale Rider's" Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman. It's a modestly compelling look at the work of the Zabinski's at the zoo, and more important, their work in saving many Polish Jews from being transferred into the concentration camps. Handsomely shot and filmed, most of the film works well though it's hampered by a couple of significant flaws.
The film's tends to minimize Jan's role in their efforts, though in real life Jan and Antonina worked together with the Polish Underground Resistance in saving many Jews. With the heavy focus on Antonina's role is the casting of "The Help's" Oscar-nominated Chastain, a fine actress usually, but she is miscast here; she doesn't resemble the real Antonina in any way, and her Polish accent tends to float in and out of various scenes, though she does get to cuddle some cute bunnies and tiger cubs.
Second, the film's uneven second act doesn't really fit with the rest of the film, especially in Antonina's efforts to persuade the psychotic Heck (a solid Bruhl) to help her locate her husband, who has gone off to fight with the Polish resistance. Even with these flaws, there are some emotionally powerful moments: a young Polish couple reuniting after a time away, and seeing a young, traumatized Jewish girl finally open up with some powerful drawings.
Considering the honorable story of the Zabinski's, I wish "The Zookeeper's Wife" was a better movie. Ackerman's book gives the better, truer portrait, while this is the glossy "Out of Africa" version of it.