The Holo­caust never looked so sen­ti­men­tal

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - | FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE

Take this lion down: Jessica Chastain

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE Di­rected by Niki Caro. Star­ring Jessica Chastain, Jo­han Helden­bergh, Michael McEl­hat­ton, Daniel Brühl. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 127 min Not ev­ery film con­cern­ing the Holo­caust needs to ex­hibit ruth­less doc­u­men­tary in­tegrity. But there is an in­vis­i­ble line be­yond which pret­ti­fi­ca­tion risks trig­ger­ing of­fence. Though a pro­fes­sional oper­a­tion stuffed with fine ac­tors, Niki Caro’s adap­ta­tion of Diane Ack­er­man’s non-fic­tion book stum­bles over that bor­der with dead­en­ing reg­u­lar­ity.

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true – and gen­uinely mov­ing – story of An­ton­ina Zabin­ski, who, with her hus­band Jan, helped save hundreds of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. The cou­ple, who ran the city’s zoo, smug­gled their charges out un­der heaps of pig-feed and then shel­tered them be­neath the cages un­til an es­cape route pre­sented it­self.

Warn­ing klax­ons sound as we open with a shot of An­ton­ina, in the wel­come form of Jessica Chastain, curl­ing up with lion cubs while golden sun­light bathes the doomed city. Then she opens her mouth. The con­ven­tion whereby ac­tors speak in bro­ken English while de­liv­er­ing dia­logue trans­lated from an­other lan­guage seemed dated 30 years ago. Chastain’s Pol­ish ac­cent is per­fectly ser­vice­able, but it does noth­ing to dis­tract from the creak­i­ness of the en­ter­prise.

Worse still are the cos­met­i­cally dis­tressed de­pic­tions of the ghetto. Caro seems to have taken her vis­ual cues from the pic­tures of cry­ing chil­dren they used to sell in Wool­worths. They look cutely sad. The look a lit­tle less sad and even cuter when al­lowed to cra­dle a baby rab­bit.

The film is even more sen­ti­men­tal in its treat­ment of the an­i­mals. You will see no more shame­less at­tempt to push emo­tional but­tons than the se­quence that finds Chastain com­fort­ing a brave ele­phant while the crea­ture frets over a re­cently de­liv­ered calf. “You look into their eyes and you know ex­actly what’s in their hearts,” she says . What is re­ally in your heart, lit­tle mar­moset? Hullo, clouds. Hullo, sky.

As un­easy, sug­ary fan­tasies go, The Zookeeper’s Wife is pretty well car­ried off. Harry Greg­son-Wil­liams’s mu­sic is nice. Daniel Brühl is slip­pery as the head Nazi. Our own Michael McEl­hat­ton is ro­bust as the Zabin­skis’ chief keeper. But the pro­fes­sion­al­ism is in the ser­vice of a film that lacks guts.

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