Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's The Zookeeper's Wife, a Focus Features release.
Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, a Focus Features release.

By Megan Bianco

Jessica Chastain and cute zoo animals feels like a good enough combination to get movie fans into the theaters. That’s certainly what the marketing for Focus Features’ new period piece The Zookeeper’s Wife would lead you to believe. The film is five years in the making as a somewhat passion project for Chastain, and the end result leaves a bit to be desired despite all the ingredients for success.

In 1939 Poland, Jan Zabinski (Johen Heldenbergh) and wife Antonina (Chastain) run a very popular local zoo in Warsaw, where they live with their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku). One fall evening, the zoo becomes one of many victims of the Nazi German bombings to overtake the country. Together, the family decides to use the remains of the zoo to not only save the animal survivors of the attacks, but also the Jewish targets. Antonina also manages to keep friendly alliances with German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl).

The Zookeeper’s Wife starts off as almost a pro-animal rights feature, but then quickly turns into the typical World War II drama we’ve seen before. Which is a shame because Heldenbergh does give a strong performance, and director Niki Caro has made quality dramas before. Angela Workman’s script should have had a lot of potential not only from Diane Ackerman’s original novel, but also the diaries of the real Antonina Zabinski. Instead we have the usual emotional manipulation using cute animals and a precocious kid, and Chastain trying her best to hold her faux-Polish accent.

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