Ever since her near-Oscar win for the role of CIA Operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain has built a career portraying strong female characters in the films she's tackled. This trend continues in Niki Caro's World War II drama, The Zookeeper's Wife. But even with the feature's amazing true story and its formidable lead actress, Caro's work lands as an early-year release and not an Oscar-season contender for a reason.
As Nazi Germany begins its invasion of Warsaw, Poland in 1939, Zoo-owners Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Chastain and Johna Heldenbergh, respectively) lose many of their animals due to the bombing of their facilities. And as the Nazi occupants begin rounding up Jewish residents and relocating them to an enclosed ghetto, the Zabinskis devise a creative plan to help these persecuted individuals escape from the ghetto and take refuge in their Zoo. But under the watchful eye of German soldier Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Zabinski family finds themselves taking an enormous risk.
Considering the film's heavy-handed source material, The Zookeeper's Wife sadly elicits only artificial emotion that feels expected rather than earned. Perhaps this vital flaw emerges because the audience never truly believes that the Zabinski family is at risk of being exposed. This unforgivable omission of necessary conflict leads to a flat dramatization filled with weakly developed characters that ultimately fails to break ground on the often highlighted World War II era. Thankfully, though, The Zookeeper's Wife manages to tell a fascinating story that deeply examines the methods of the Zoo-owner's harboring. Jessica Chastain delivers another fine performance, but one that seems very unlikely to linger deep into the awards season run. Niki Caro adapts an exceptional true story in a very mediocre and sluggish way, leaving plenty to be desired with The Zookeeper's Wife.